BBC4’s Wallander – Series 2 with Krister Henriksson

BBC4 has started repeating the second series of Swedish TV’s Wallander (2009-10) on successive Saturdays at 9pm. I managed to catch up with the first episode today, having had a prior engagement with Wales’ finest, The Manic Street Preachers, in Cardiff last night (splendid as ever).

This series has Krister Henriksson in the lead role. As I’ve noted in the past, I’ve always been more partial to Rolf Lassgård’s portrayal of Wallander in the film adaptations of Mankell’s novels between 2004 and 2007. But I’ve decided to give Henriksson a proper go, having realised that I’d only caught odd episodes with him over the years, rather than watching an entire series through from start to finish.

Krister Henriksson

This Saturday’s episode (21 May), entitled ‘The Revenge’  (‘Hämnden’), begins with Wallander celebrating his move to a dream house by the sea. The party is rudely interrupted by an apparent terrorist act, the bombing of Ystad’s power-station, which plunges the town into darkness. The next morning, a man is found murdered in his home, and the rather hungover investigative team is forced to ask: are the two crimes coincidence or could they be in some way linked?

I really enjoyed this opener. Based on an original storyline rather than on one of the Mankell novels, it was well-plotted, well-written and had a few nice spine-tingler moments (keep plenty of spare torches to hand in case of a power cut, everyone). The acting was excellent, and there was promising interplay between Wallander and the rest of the team, especially trainee policewoman Isabell Melin, who challenges Wallander’s rather outdated views on gender. The episode also introduces public prosecutor Katarina Ahlsell, one of those strong female characters of whom Mrs P. is so fond (played by Lena Andre, who also plays Erika Berger in the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

While drawing on original material, the episode still feels very Wallander-y. Its tone is very close to that of the books, successfully incorporating social critique into the narrative of the police investigation.

And the rather morose-looking Henriksson as Wallander? Yes, alright, there’s some promise there. I’ll do my best to put Rolf to one side for now and let Henriksson do his stuff.

Episode 1 is repeated this coming Wednesday, and will be available on iplayer for another few days.

Update – 16 July. I’ve just watched the 9th episode in the series, ‘The Angel of Death’. At this point, I find that I’ve grown to appreciate Henriksson’s quieter, steadier depiction of Wallander. But oh dear, what a crazy, melodramatic conclusion this episode had! It knocked down a number of stereotypes, only to replace them with an even larger one when the murderer and his/her motivation was revealed. Tsk!

Update – 16 August I’ve just caught up on the 13th and final episode in the series, ‘Vittnet’ (The Witness), which was very good. The story focused on the trafficking and exploitation of illegal workers, and the difficulties of successfully prosecuting those at the top due to the intimidation of witnesses, as well as members of the police and judicial system (such as Wallander and Katarina). There was a nice dissection of the way that Swedish local government and firms subcontract their business for a reduced price to others, and then turn a blind eye to the horrendous working hours and conditions on their building sites. This probably sounds a bit worthy and dry, but wasn’t, as there was a strong human dimension to the storylines, and a touchingly upbeat ending, which I rather liked, having just read The Troubled Man (review to follow soon).

#7 Jussi Adler-Olsen / Mercy

Jussi Adler-Olson, Mercy, translated from the Danish by Lisa Hartford (London: Penguin, 2011 [2008]). A bravura start to the Department Q series: powerful, gripping and moving in equal measure  5 stars

jussi-adler-olsen-mercy

Opening sentence: She scratched her fingertips on the smooth walls until they bled, and pounded her fists on the thick panes until she could no longer feel her hands.

On Friday 13th May, the author of Mercy joined John Lloyd, contributing editor on the Financial Times, to discuss his novel on BBC Radio 4. There was an entertaining clash of views: while Lloyd felt the book was ‘terribly, terribly, terribly dark’, Adler-Olsen thought Lloyd ‘completely wrong – it’s a very funny story in many aspects’. Having finished the novel today, I’ve come to the strange conclusion that they’re both right: Mercy will take you to the very darkest of places, while also somehow retaining the capacity to make you laugh out loud.

Mercy is the first in the ‘Department Q’ series, published in Denmark to great acclaim in 2008, and is the winner of a clutch of crime fiction prizes, including the Danish Reader’s Book Award. The novel introduces Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck, an outstanding investigator whose erratic behaviour following a traumatic shooting gets him kicked upstairs to lead the newly formed Department Q. Its remit: reopening and solving cold cases. Except being kicked upstairs actually means being kicked downstairs to a pokey office in the basement, without any investigative support other than chauffeur, cleaner and beverage-maker Assad.

The first case taken up by Mørck is that of rising Democrat politician Merete Lynggaard, whose sudden disappearance five years previously has never been satisfactorily explained. Everyone, including Mørck, assumes that she is dead. But is she?

Mercy is a beautifully constructed crime novel, weaving an account of Merete’s story since 2002 into Mørck’s investigations in present-day 2007. The movement between these strands creates a beguiling momentum that carries the reader forward in anticipation of the moment when – just maybe – the two narratives will intersect.

Merete’s tale is extremely dark and easily the most powerful part of the narrative: the crimes committed against her are horrifying, although the author manages to avoid the pitfall of crude misogynism through a compelling examination of how this young woman attempts to resist the powerful forces bent on her destruction.

The story of Mørck’s investigation into Merete’s case is lighter, in spite of his struggle with the trauma of a past shooting. Both his tussles with police colleagues and his developing relationship with Assad, an unlikely assistant sleuth with a few secrets of his own,  provide genuine moments of humour, although these are never allowed to interfere with the progression of a first-class police procedural.

Interestingly, I managed to work out the ‘solution’ to the mystery at the heart of Merete’s story quite early on. Even more interestingly, this didn’t matter to me in the slightest. Mercy was such a quality reading experience that my enjoyment of the text wasn’t remotely impeded. I’m already impatiently looking foward to the second novel in the series, Disgrace.

An extract from Mercy is available here. With thanks to Penguin for providing Mrs Peabody Investigates with a review copy.

Mrs. Peabody awards Mercy an outstanding 5 stars.

#6 Andrea Camilleri / The Terracotta Dog

Andrea Camilleri, The Terracotta Dog, translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli (London: Picador, 2004 [1996]. A thoroughly entertaining read, with a very likeable investigator and well-constructed plot. Only the cliched representations of women let it down 4 stars

First line: To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be an iffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind…

I came across this novel in a charity shop the other day, and thought I’d give it a go, as I hadn’t read any Camilleri novels before and it looked promising.

The Terracotta Dog is the second in Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, who has been described by The Guardian as ‘a cross between Columbo and […] Philip Marlowe, with the added culinary idiosyncracies of an Italian Maigret’.  He makes for an intelligent but endearingly human investigator in a police procedural that never takes itself too seriously. The novel’s rather gentle critique of the incompetence of the Sicilian police force, the activities of the Mafia, and the corruption of the ‘system’, is leavened with considerable humour.

At the heart of the novel is the tale of two lovers, who are found dead in a secret cave fifty years after their disappearance, guarded by the eponymous terracotta dog. Montalbano’s investigations into this cold case lead him in all kinds of unexpected directions, including a tutorial on semiotics (the study of signs). I loved the fact that Camilleri wasn’t afraid to reference Umberto Eco’s Treatise of General Semiotics and Julia Kristeva’s Semiotics – both key texts in the field. Eco, of course, is a semiotician turned crime writer, and Camilleri gives a stylish nod to other crime novelists as well: Montalbano has read both Dürrenmatt and his namesake Montalbán, the creator of the Spanish Pepe Carvalho series (apparently a deliberate homage on the part of the author).

One aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed was its expertly constructed plot. Camilleri is an excellent storyteller, who knows how to weave a stylish narrative. This skill may well be linked to the author’s ‘other’ job as a teacher of stage direction at he Silvio d’Amico Academy of the Dramatic Arts.

The only down-side was the cliched and quite literally laughable depiction of women in the text. The most extreme example is the character of Ingrid, who is a young, blond, long-legged Swede draped in conveniently see-through blouses. Having become used to positive depictions of strong women in Scandinavian crime series like The Killing, it was a bit of shock to be confronted by the old stereotypes of women as either objects of sexual desire or fabulously good cooks. Some bits were so daft they made me chortle out loud, so arguably there was some added entertainment value (though if you were to ask me on different day I might decide to be grumpier about the sexism).

Mrs. Peabody awards The Terracotta Dog a highly entertaining 4 stars.

#5 Henning Mankell / The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Vintage, 2011 [2008]). A gripping crime novel spanning a hundred years and four continents. Arguably a little over-ambitious, but a highly enjoyable read nonetheless 4 stars

Opening sentence: I, Birgitta Roslin, do solomnly declare that I shall endevour, to the best of my knowledge and in accordance with my conscience, to pass judgement without fear or favour, be the accused rich or poor, and according to the laws and statutes of Sweden…

My Easter treat was a copy of Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. Like many others, I’ve been a Wallander fan for many years, but have come to enjoy Mankell’s standalone novels as well, and to admire his continued enthusiasm for writing and tackling big subjects when he could so easily be resting on his laurels.

The novel opens with the discovery of a brutal massacre in the remote northern hamlet of Hesjövallen that shocks the whole of Sweden. The first few pages are also liable to shock even a seasoned crime reader. As the Sunday Times quote on the back of the novel so accurately observes: ‘it is hard to think of a crime novel with a more grisly opening’. Snacking is not to be recommended for the first 50 pages.

After reading a newspaper report, Judge Birgitta Roslin realises that she has a family connection to two of the victims, and becomes increasingly involved in unravelling this highly unusual case, which has its beginnings in the harsh histories of nineteenth-century migration and colonial oppression. Taking Roslin and the reader on a sweeping set of individual, historical, political and geographical journeys, The Man from Beijing is both a detective novel and political thriller, featuring an eclectic range of characters from all over the world.

For this reader, one of the novel’s strongest points was the characterisation of Roslin and the policewoman Vivi Sundberg (thank you Mankell for creating these complex, interesting, older women!). The plot was also gripping, but perhaps overly ambitious in places, with different sections located in 2006 Sweden, 1860s China and America, as well as present-day China and Africa. Mankell is to be applauded for the scope of the history that he tries to show us, his exploration of the complex relations between Europe, America and China, and his illumination of developing economic ties between China and Africa, but towards the end of the novel I felt that these political strands were in danger of overshadowing the crime narrative.

That having been said, the novel was still an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking read. And it’s always good to see authors pushing the boundaries of the crime novel in interesting ways.

An extract from the novel is available here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Man from Beijing a hearty 4 stars.

The end of BBC4’s The Killing: crime drama at its very best

Mrs Peabody’s review of the first two episodes is available here.

So BBC4’s The Killing has finished. Twenty hours of superb crime drama, which had 500,000 of us gripped for two hours every single week, aired its last two episodes last night.

The Killing maintained its suspense and quality in a quite remarkable fashion over each of its 20 episodes. In Sarah Lund, it gave us a gritty, obsessive and sometimes flawed investigator, who won our hearts with her single-minded determination and her jumpers. And last night, it delivered a nail-biting and utterly gripping denouement that was Shakespearian in its tragedy and pathos. We ended, with perfect circularity, in the woods where we started Nanna’s story – one last, lovely touch. 

In line with the policy of Mrs. Peabody Investigates, no spoilers are given here. But if you would like to know whodunnit and to read some cogent analysis of the last two epiosodes, the place to go is Vicky Frost’s excellent blog at The Guardian. I might add that my guess at the murderer was completely wrong (and many others on Twitter had smugly got it right). At some point, I’ll be watching the whole 20 episodes again in the knowledge of who committed the murder – which I’m sure will be an equally rewarding viewing experience.

Lund and Meyer, we’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know. Already looking forward to Series 2 later this year.

31 March: Lund makes the cover of G2! Full article available here.

The last Wallander: UK publication of Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man

Today sees the UK publication of Henning Mankell’s tenth – and final – Kurt Wallander novel, The Troubled Man.

Here’s the Vintage synopsis:

>> The first new Wallander novel for a decade, the culmination of the bestselling series from the godfather of Swedish crime.

Every morning Håkan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. However, one winter’s day he fails to come home. It seems that the retired naval officer has vanished without trace.

Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation but he has personal reasons for his interest in the case as Håkan’s son is engaged to his daughter Linda. A few months earlier, at Håkan’s 75th birthday party, Kurt noticed that the old man appeared uneasy and seemed eager to talk about a controversial incident from his past career that remained shrouded in mystery. Could this be connected to his disappearance? When Håkan’s wife Louise also goes missing, Wallander is determined to uncover the truth.

His search leads him down dark and unexpected avenues involving espionage, betrayal and new information about events during the Cold War that threatens to cause a political scandal on a scale unprecedented in Swedish history. The investigation also forces Kurt to look back over his own past and consider his hopes and regrets, as he comes to the unsettling realisation that even those we love the most can remain strangers to us. <<

The Daily Telegraph carries an exclusive extract – available here.

There’s also a nice piece in The Guardian, in which Jon Henley talks to Henning Mankell about The Troubled Man, the Wallander series, and looking back over life at 60.

Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Germany meets Finland: Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon

Things have (ahem) been somewhat biased towards Danish and Scandinavian crime fiction in the last few posts. So I’m trying to broaden my horizons by means of a German crime novel by Jan Costin Wagner. But wait…his wife’s Finnish and the book’s set in Finland? So much for weaning myself off Nordic crime.

First line: Kimmo Joentaa was alone with her when she went to sleep.

I hadn’t heard of Costin Wagner before, but really liked Ice Moon (Eismond), his second novel, which features the young Finnish policeman Kimmo Joentaa. The novel opens with the death of Joentaa’s wife after a long illness, and in many ways is a study of grief that happens to be woven into a murder investigation. Each of the victims has been smothered in their sleep, and Joentaa becomes fascinated by these ‘eerily tranquil’ killings, while trying to absorb the loss of his own wife.

The novel’s nicely written, with a characteristic Nordic feel, and the both the investigator and the murderer’s story are explored with sensitivity. The Independent on Sunday described the book as ‘intriguing and touching’, which is spot on. A lovely little read.

Ice Moon is published in translation by Vintage Books (2006), and you can read the first few chapters online here.

BBC4 buys second series of The Killing / Forbrydelsen

Excellent news for fans of The Killing: it’s been confirmed today that BBC4 has bought the rights to the second series (10 episodes) and that it will air later this year.

‘The Killing is the most intensely thrilling televison drama experience in British broadcasting of the moment and I’m delighted that series two will be on BBC Four. It is a diamond of a series – complex, dramatic, thoroughly gripping. It never loses sight of its truly brilliant insight: the humanity and the emotion that goes on behind a police investigation into a brutal and sordid murder. At its heart, this is The Killing‘s genius – to truly portray the human cost of tragedy. And it is to the BBC’s acquisition department that real credit lies for the clever discretionary spot-and-pick-up of a gem of a series’ – Richard Klein, controller of BBC4.

For full details, see Neil Midgley’s article in The Telegraph

The ‘crime-loving library borrowers’ of 2010

Last Saturday’s Guardian (19.02.11) carried a list of the top 100 books borrowed from UK libraries in 2010, along with a piece by John Dugdale on ‘the crime-loving borrowers’.

It turns out that almost two-thirds of the books on the most borrowed list are crime novels or thrillers, including the whole of the top 10 (four Pattersons, two Rankins, and one Child, Brown, Connelly and Slaughter respectively). Impressive stuff, and Dugdale explores a few of the reasons why this might be the case.

But the bit that caught my eye was this:

‘Stieg Larsson (who had the top three places in the sales chart) is relegated to a single entry in 76th place. Library users, this suggests, are less keen on Euro-crime, less responsive to the stimulus of TV or film adaptations, and not fond of lengthy, heavy tomes. What they want instead are American or American-style murder stories that are quick reads…’

What struck me was how much Dugdale ‘deduced’ from one statistic, and I’m wondering if he wasn’t being a little over-hasty in the assertions he made. After all, there’s an extremely complex set of factors that have contributed to Larsson’s position on the list in particular, and to the absence of other examples of Euro-crime in general.

Larsson first. Dugdale quite rightly notes the contrast between the 76th position on the list of The Girl who Played with Fire and Larsson’s dominance of the 2010 UK sales chart. This would actually suggest that readers liked the Millenium Trilogy so much that they wanted to buy it and keep it, rather than to borrow it and give it back. So ironically, it could well be the enormous ‘must have’ success of this crime series that has contributed to its lower position on the library chart. And (ahem), do such ‘lengthy heavy tomes’ really put libary readers off? The presence of Hilary Mantell’s doorstopper Wolf Hall at number 24 appears to suggest otherwise.

Larsson, of course, is a Euro-crime-writing phenomenon, whose world-wide sales were already in excess of 12 million by 2008. Other Euro-crime novels typically have a much bigger hill to climb before making it on to annual lists like these.

Firstly, European crime fiction has to be ‘found’ and translated by a sympathetic publisher like Maclehose. Only a modest selection make it. It’s inevitable, therefore, that the sales and borrowing figures for Euro-crime will reflect the smaller number of  Euro-crime novels that are in print compared with those produced for the massive Anglo-American market. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that only the truly big hitters like Larsson manage inclusion in the top 100.

I’d accept that publishers sometimes have a challenging time convincing a readership reared on a largely British and American cultural diet that European fiction – crime or otherwise – is worth reading. But I’m wondering if the recent surge of Euro-crime dramas on BBC4 is beginning to shift the perceptions of a more mainstream audience towards ‘foreign’ imports. The incredibly positive reaction to the Danish series The Killing is a case in point. One interesting observation from a couple of viewers has been how surprised they are to be enjoying a subtitled programme so much. So perhaps the success of quality foreign-language crime series like this will turn more people on to the wealth of excellent European crime fiction and TV out there. I really do hope that this is the case.

‘Can Scandinavian crime fiction teach socialism?’

There’s a very nice article by Deborah Orr in today’s The Guardian, which explores Scandinavian crime fiction’s role in ‘framing socio-political debate’. She takes in The Killing (‘are political coalitions healthy?’), the ‘Martin Beck’ series (Marxist critique of 1960s Swedish society), Nesbo’s works (‘sexual crime as expression of discord between men and women’) as well as a couple of others in the course of her discussion. Well worth a read.

For the Lund watchers amongst you, the article also features a picture of Lund wearing a third jumper – white diamonds on black!