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

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Henning Mankell’s detective hero, Kurt Wallander, is best known to Americans through the PBS Wallander Masterpiece Mystery Series, starring Kenneth Branaugh. But Mankell’s novels, including short fiction such as The Pyramid, also deserve to be well known—wildly popular, in fact. He’s a terrific writer.

The Wallander books comprise eight, highly compelling stories (written in the 1990s and translated into English only within the last five years or so):

Faceless Killers
The Dogs of Riga
The White Lioness
The Man Who Smiled
Sidetracked
The Fifth Woman
One Step Behind
Firewall

Recently in a bookstore in Singapore (of all places, almost literally the polar opposite of Malmo, Sweden, where the Wallander series is set) I stumbled upon Mankell’s Italian Shoes, a novel about a disgraced Swedish surgeon who lives alone on a remote island — and then discovers in old age that he fathered a daughter in the 1960s.

I enjoyed Italian Shoes so much that I turned for the first time to the Wallander series, beginning with The Pyramid, a prequel although the last written in the series. In the Foreword to an edition of The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases, Henning Mankell says, “It was only after I had written the eighth and final installment in the series about Kurt Wallander that I thought of the subtitle I had always sought but never found. When everything, or at least most of it, was over I understood that the subtitle naturally had to be ‘Novels about the Swedish Anxiety.’”

This comment may seem to be a dismal idea not likely to appeal American readers, but the Swedish “anxiety” turns out to be American “anxiety,” too, a deep concern that our best days are behind us—the very same concern that inspired the great American hard-boiled detectives of the Great Depression.

The fictional character whom Wallander most resembles is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Wallander works on hunch. He goes it alone. He gets himself into life-threatening trouble, and like Marlowe he frequently falls into an inky blackness from which he does not revive until his assailant is long gone. Of all other authors, Mankell’s prose is also most like Chandler’s terse, energetic, hard-boiled style. This is probably why the Kurt Wallander of The Pyramid engaged me like few other contemporary detective heroes have been able to do.

The Pyramid is a collection of short stories and novellas (which makes it particularly well-suited to the Kindle edition); they fill in the “missing years” at the beginning of Wallander’s career roughly from 1969 to 1990. In each story, the murder victim is an entirely innocuous — or even pleasant — individual, unlike most murder mysteries in which the victim has many enemies and therefore a large cast of potential suspects through which the detective must sort, much as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot always does. Central to all of Mankell’s mysteries is the secret lives of these seemingly ordinary people, or, as he puts it in one story, their “secret rooms,” which conceal a dark side.

In “Wallander’s First Case,” set in 1969, the hero is a patrol police officer assigned to crowd-control during Vietnam War protests. While on a waiting list for promotion, Wallander becomes involved in a homicide investigation: a neighbor in his apartment building commits suicide—or at least the police believe him to have committed suicide.

In “The Man with the Mask” (set in 1975) rookie-detective Wallander stumbles across a murdered shop-keeper and is subsequently attacked by her killer, a refugee from apartheid in South Africa.

“The Man on the Beach” fast-forwards to 1987, when Wallander has become a lead detective: a taxi driver picks up a gentleman near a beach and drives him to a spot near his hotel in a small town. The gentleman never leaves the cab alive. Wallander soon discovers the gentleman was poisoned. He investigates the murder-victim’s background and finds him to be a reclusive, but otherwise harmless-seeming person.

In “The Death of the Photographer” (set in 1988) Wallander’s hometown portrait photographer is found murdered in his studio, the back of his skull bashed in with an unidentified “blunt object.” He’s a man described by all as “very friendly,” a man who had no enemies. No enemies, but no friends, either. Even his widow claims she barely knew him.

In the titular “The Pyramid” Mankell again reveals the secret inner lives of murder victims through Wallander’s somewhat random probing. The story takes place around Christmas and New Year’s 1989. A single-engine airplane flies at low altitude to avoid Swedish radar; the pilot suddenly loses control of the rudder. The plane crashes on a beach, killing the pilot and his companion and burning their bodies beyond recognition. Within hours, a sewing-supply shop explodes and burns, killing the two elderly sisters who owned it. At that inopportune moment, Wallander’s father (a landscape painter with dementia) decides to take a trip to Cairo to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the pyramids; there he is arrested for attempting to climb the Cheops pyramid. Wallander must abandon his investigation of the four deaths to rescue his father from jail.

Throughout The Pyramid’s stories, Wallander and his police-force colleagues comment on the state of the world in which they work, a world that no longer functions as it did when they were children. It’s a society where no one is safe, no one is guiltless.

Like “The Pyramid’s” Piper Cherokee airplane, all the characters who inhabit Henning Mankell’s fiction are flying out of control.

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About Catherine Mambretti