Fancied a bit of crime reading this festive period, so I went to the old faithful writer, someone who has never yet disappointed me, Henning Mankell. The Kurt Wallander mysteries are superb novels, set in the bleak countryside of Sweden. Miserablist fiction here, a particular favourite of mine, and done superbly. Wallander is a superbly crafted character. Middle aged, likes his drink and opera, failed relationships everywhere, you cannot help but like this creation. There’s irony all over him. He’s also struggling to understand what is happening in his country over recent years. And it is into this bleak picture of modern Sweden, that Sidetracked starts.
And it starts with a bang. A teenage girl stands in a deserted field. Wallander is called in to see what she’s doing, but when he approaches, she sets fire to herself before his eyes, and dies soon after. Left miserable by this sight, Wallander is drawn into investigate a murder of a once-senior political figure. The body was scalped. All of this as Wallander prepares for his summer holiday. It’s soon apparent that a serial killer is stalking this tranquil setting of Skane, as another body is found, also scalped.
The pacing of this novel is relentless. Mankell is superb at not only generating a stark atmosphere with minimalism (be this through the translation or otherwise), but he never lets the movement of the characters or their plots slow down. It is this sort of thing that shows a master is at work, and is so far his finest novel. And there are plenty of serious comments on the world of the Swedish police, on child prostitution, and on corruption of high political figures. Not only that, but he offers comment and symbolism on the nature of childhood—a potent theme in this novel. He provides solid doses of literary writing, but with a solid engine behind it. Never shying away from those aspects of human nature which are truly gruesome, but also somehow explaining a motive as almost rational (to a madman, of course).
I was left breathless by this one.