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Book Review: Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases by Henning Mankell

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I picked up The Pyramid very eagerly, once upon a time, thinking it was the first book in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series — it says "The First Wallander Cases" on the front, after all. Instead, what I found was both exactly what was advertised and precisely not what I wanted. This is a book of short stories that Mankell wrote in 1998 — well after the start of the Wallander series in 1991, and after the latest solo Wallander book, Firewall, which was published in 1997 in Sweden. It is, in fact, an author looking back to the roots of a character he's created — a prequel, if you will.

Since I hadn't yet read Faceless Killers, I put off reading The Pyramid for a bit, and I'm ultimately glad I did. Though the events in The Pyramid happen before anything in the novels, there are, somehow, spoilers within.

I wasn't as swept up in these stories — and not because Mankell can't write a good story. He can. The first story, "Wallander's First Case," is actually quite well done, and it's a prime example of the good work that comes from focusing on the character rather than the mystery as a the generator for the story's energy. Here, we see Wallander in the first months of his relationship with Mona, deeply in love, not yet famous or even very interesting, and certainly not particularly sharp. He's anxious and quick to jump to conclusions and action. Some of those traits will continue; others, we know before we even start reading, will not.

But the trouble with these stories is simply that they're all together. Mankell is in some ways a very difficult writer to read back-to-back, because he refers to his own stories so often and so plainly that it begins to feel like this character only lives in the moments when he's being written about. Sure, that's true — but it shouldn't feel that way. Yet every single moment of importance in Wallander's life, after this book, has pretty much been set in print. The mysterious stabbing of his youth is in here. The initial breakdown of his marriage is here. And when Wallander thinks back to something that happened in the last story, it's just too on-point, too much a reminder of, oh, yeah, that thing I just read about!

The kind of memory that sustains a character in a longer work — suddenly remembering the girl's diamond ring or the man's funny hat — doesn't work in a book like this as well. It suspends disbelief to think that Wallander has only the memories of himself that the reader does, too.

This is still a book worth reading, in part because it gives hints of what Mankell's feelings are for his character, and where he thinks his arc could have gone (nowhere but where it did, which is refreshing).

The final story in the book is actually a novella called "The Pyramid," and in part because of its length, it was my favorite. In it, we get to see Wallander taking charge of his small office, still learning but also clearly beginning to relish his command, and already forming into the anxious, distracted, relentless character he will be throughout the rest of the series. Tracing two seemingly unrelated deaths — those of two men in a mysterious small plane and those of two spinster sisters who died in a fire — Wallander is the youngest, mentally, and the fittest, physically, readers will ever see him. He is a joy to read about.

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About Jenn Kepka