Monday, September 4, 2006
THE MAN WHO SMILED
By Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson
New Press. 336 pp. $24.95
This is the fourth of the nine novels about Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander that have earned Swedish writer Henning Mankell an international following. Published in Sweden in 1994 and now appearing in this country for the first time, "The Man Who Smiled" is neither the best nor the worst cop story I've read, but it is by far the gloomiest. Mankell has clearly been influenced by his great countryman Ingmar Bergman, whose films for several decades spread profound depression throughout the Western world. Rain and fog, alienation and angst, doom and death crowd these pages. The novel is so damned depressing that it often had me laughing aloud.
When we first meet Wallander he is on leave from the Ystad police force. The trauma of killing a man -- in self-defense -- has left him in the grip of "all-consuming depression." For more than a year he has been drinking heavily and, on trips to Barbados and Thailand, whoring as well. Single after "a bitter and long drawn-out divorce," he is estranged from his father and daughter. He resolves to quit the police force but changes his mind when a friend is murdered.
His friend, a lawyer, was shot in his office. Wallander discovers that the man's father, also a lawyer, was previously murdered in what the police wrongly accepted as an accident. Other crimes follow. A land mine is buried in the garden of the old lawyer's secretary. A bomb blows up Wallander's car, and he escapes only because of the miraculous instincts that guide him. Soon his investigation focuses on a billionaire businessman, famous for his support of charities and the arts, who lives in a castle outside Ystad. We readers have known since the first chapter that this paragon had his henchmen kill the lawyers because they knew about his shady dealings. Thanks to some improbable plot twists and unlikely heroics, the dour detective closes in on the ever-smiling billionaire, but by then I had been distracted by other elements of the story, notably its all-pervasive gloom.
When Ystad hires its first female police officer, Wallander can only grumble, "With a woman among us, nothing can stay as it used to be." He reflects that this woman's career will give her "an unbroken sequence of disappointments, and very little joy." The Swedish weather is endlessly bleak: "The wind was getting stronger, as was the rain, and he felt cold. A buzzard perched on a crooked fence post, watching him."
A stop for coffee is no help: "Dour Swedish gloom was nowhere more strikingly in evidence than in cafes attached to gas stations." "Melancholy foghorns" sound in the distance, and Swedish homes offer no cheer: "Everything, from the furniture to the wallpaper, was dark, giving him a feeling of melancholy and silence." Nor does Wallander's workplace provide comfort: "A police station is essentially like a prison." We are not surprised when poor Wallander reflects, "I'm a man who doesn't laugh enough."
"The Man Who Smiled" is notable not only for this excessive gloom, but also for countless cliches. I should confess that, despite the ministrations of my editors, I remain generally tolerant of so-called cliches. I tend to agree with Camille Paglia's perverse notion that they are our old friends -- our country cousins, so to speak -- and not to be lightly or snobbishly scorned. One man's cliche can be another man's fond memory. Still, there are limits, and Mankell, or his translator -- I cannot say which -- has gone beyond them. We are assaulted by phrases that we do not immediately associate with Sweden: "I'm not seeing the forest for the trees." "Well, I'm back in the saddle now." "I can't shake off the feeling that there's something fishy about those two dead lawyers." "There's been a lot of water under the bridge." "It's always better from the horse's mouth." "The police had the green light to put all their eggs in one basket." And, the grand prize winner, "What he would have to do now was not merely wipe that smile off the man's face, he had also to slay a giant."
If we strip away the moroseness and the cliches, what remains? A mildly interesting police procedural about a detective trying to nail an evil billionaire. It may help if the reader, like Wallander, shares Balzac's view that behind every great fortune is a great crime -- but even seeing the tycoon's great crimes exposed doesn't do much to cheer us up. I do want to note, however, that I spotted one glint of humor amid the prevailing darkness. It concerns Wallander's father, a surly old artist who keeps painting the same picture over and over, "an autumn landscape, with or without a grouse in the foreground." These paintings turn up a few times, and that's the joke: Some have a grouse and some don't. Those Swedes, they slay me.