Sunday, January 13, 2008

Murder and Madness, Swedish Style

Crime fiction master Henning Mankell starts and ends Before The Frost (BTF) with some serious and largely American tragedies: the Jim Jones/Jonestown affair and 9/11, but the story largely takes place in Sweden. A familiar friend to fans of international crime fiction, police inspector Kurt Wallander, is joined in this novel by his daughter, Linda, who recently graduated from the police academy. Linda is in a sort of suspended-animation, living with her Dad and waiting for the budget to be freed up so she can start work as a police officer. Linda will work out of the same police station in Skane as her Dad, and this book has a lot to say about father-daughter relationships- one theme involves Linda's long-time friend Anna and Anna's father, who abandoned the family 24 years earlier.

One pleasure of the book is a re-acquaintance with officer Stefan Lindman, whom I first met in The Return of the Dancing Master. However, the story itself is sobering. Though murder and disappearance occur throughout, they are also accompanied by cults, religious fanatics, infanticide, lies, and issues of how well we really know anyone.

The book is complex, but not needlessly so. Some events are not linked to the main thread in the way one might expect, and Linda shows her innate intelligence, as well as her inexperience, while pursuing various clues and crimes before she officially puts on the police uniform. Linda jumps into the fray because her friend Anna disappears shortly after mentioning a glimpse of her long-absent father in a nearby town. This is a claim that Linda has trouble believing.

Linda accompanies her own father to several crime scenes and to interview witnesses, initially more by coincidence than design. Linda's involvement increases out of necessity as the crimes begin to escalate, Anna's disappearance grows more troubling, and even more people disappear. Linda also travels around Sweden and to Denmark in search of answers about her missing friend, putting herself at risk and being assaulted several times. Linda is afraid now and then, but she has the determination of her father, and fights through encounters with thugs, steel hunting traps, and Christian terrorists (and no, they aren't a fictional construct outside of Northern Ireland).

During the story, we learn about Linda's troubled teenage years, two suicide attempts (one of which was very serious), her struggles with both parents (before and after their divorce), her failed relationships with boyfriends, and her decision to change careers and join the police. In spite of these difficulties, Linda grows closer to her father in many ways as they pursue the case.

There are no easy answers for the Skane police force or its Baker Street Irregular, Linda, on this case. The contributions of many, including colleagues who don't like each other, help at various stages, and Kurt orchestrates the team with his usual, gruff skill. Ultimately, however, the story and final triumph are Linda's, even if the victory is partly hollow because of the story's casualties.

I've read a lot of Mankell's books now, including Faceless Killers, The Fifth Woman, The Dogs of Riga, The White Lioness and more. The books can be very violent at times, but Mankell never exploits the violence by overdoing things, he only introduces violence that is integral to the stories. These novels maintain a very high quality and never rehash the same territory. In his books, Mankell doesn't shy away from moralizing about intolerance, greed, selfishness, neglect, fanaticism, racism, fascism and more, but he usually has a pretty light touch with the moralizing. Kurt Wallander himself is refreshingly non-judgmental, though he meets a realistic cross-section of people from all sides of the moral universe in his police work.

Read BTF to find out who survives unscathed, who "makes it" but bears lasting scars, and who doesn't make it at all out of the tangled web.

Lost comments recovered as text (reverse chronological order):

  • James Bashkin

Peter, I agree. The last two I've read mainly deal with crime in rural or small-town Sweden, yet they manage to incorporate WW2, contemporary fascism, Jonestown, 9/11, Christian terrorists, international Christian cults, and even more. The remarkable thing is it doesn't seem forced at all. Best wishes, Jim

  • Peter
I haven't read Mankell's last few novels, but in the earlier books, I was always impressed by his ability to combine narration on international and local scales.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  • James Bashkin

Thanks so much, Chhaya! Yes, definitely friends. I'll reply in blogcatalog, too.

  • Chhaya
even tough i write mostly romance, i NEVER read it. i love reading the criminal/thriller type! so glad to have found u... friends?

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