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Many of you will know of the Kurt Wallander crime thrillers from the TV or film adaptations that have been done of them. A set of films were made in Sweden between 1994 and 2007, which were direct adaptations of the first nine novels. There was also an excellent Swedish TV series which ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2008 and was shown on British television, subsequently a set of nine TV films were made by the BBC which aired between 2008 and 2010 with more planned for 2012.
However before the films and TV series came the books written by Swedish author Henning Mankell. Mankell wrote a total of eleven Wallander novels the last being published in 2011. 'Before the Frost' is strictly speaking more a Linda Wallander mystery since Linda, Kurt Wallander's daughter, takes the lead in the story. In this novel Linda has completed her police training and is just weeks away from starting in a job as a police officer in the same police station as her father. The novel is set mid way through the series timeline and was used as the basis for the first episode of the second Swedish TV adaptation.
The opening of the novel is in the form of a prologue set in Guyana at the time of the Jim Jones cult mass suicide in 1978. The story then moves forward to 2001 where a number of strange animal killings are happening near Ystad a small town on the cost in the most southern part of Sweden and home to Kurt and Linda Wallander. At first the attacks on the animals puzzle the police but later the horrific murder of a local historian in the woods and the link that has to the unexplained disappearance of Anne Westilin one of Linda close friends leads Wallander to think that the events are not unconnected and that more are likely to follow possibly even putting Linda in danger.
The Wallander novels are as much about the characters as the plots. Similar to Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels the author builds a detailed picture of the often flawed characters in the story which is just as much of a pleasure to read as it is to uncover the complex mystery. Like Rebus Wallander is far from being the ideal policeman, father or husband. At the time of this story he has separated from his wife Mona, Linda's mother and is prone to burst of anger at those around him. He has few close friends, drinks too much and has a bad diet. His health is suffering as is his relationship with his rebellious daughter Linda who herself has many problems. He doesn't always like authority and gets so wrapped up in his cases that often he will break the rules in order to solve the crimes.
In this novel we see Kurt struggle to communicate and understand his daughter. She has temporarily moved back in with her father and the arrangement causes ructions from the very start. Linda is herself a very complex character, now approaching her thirties she looks back on a life that has been forever marred by a bouts of depression earlier in her life and a suicide attempt when she was fifteen. She has a very love hate relationship with her father and her choice of career in the police is symbolic of this. On one hand admiring her father's dedication and skill as a policeman at the same time knowing that it was his job which was a major factor in the breakup of his marriage and that he would not want her to take up this profession.
Mankell is brilliant at really getting inside the head of his characters. In this novel rather than getting Wallander's point of view we see him through the eyes of Linda and this adds yet another layer of depth to the characterisation.
The bleak autumnal southern Swedish landscape is almost a character on its own in the novel. Most of the actions seem to take place under dreary grey skies or at night. Barren windswept fields and rugged coastlines match the emotional maelstrom that the characters create. Desolate churches sit in small villages, lonely canal where people go eel fishing by lamp light criss-cross flat agricultural land stretching for miles along fertile plains. The places described reveal a melancholy beauty and manage to totally captivate the reader.
The story is well paced and well plotted. The author draws the contrast between Linda's gut instincts that something is wrong on first discovering her friend is missing and Kurt's more professional, steady approach as he tries to reassure her that it is too soon to worry. The emotional confrontation between father and daughter is the at the heart of the novel, with feelings of suppressed guilt and regret on the part of Kurt at the way that Linda's life was damaged by his marriage failure and her exasperation at his inability to communicate his feeling to her and her inability to talk to him.
Underpinning the novel is a feeling that Sweden has lost his way. Not that many political points are directly made but through the eyes of Wallander and maybe of the author too you get a feeling of disappointment and resignation as to the evil that humans can do to one another. While it is short of saying that society is breaking down it does give the impression of a slow inexorable decline toward an unfeeling, uncaring future.
Throughout the story a host of other interesting characters are introduced to us; Linda's mother Mona dissatisfied with her new life separated from Kurt married to a rich businessman and sliding into alcoholism, Nyberg the grumpy pathologist, Detective Martinsson who has run ins with Wallander despite being his subordinate Anna Westilin Linda's childhood friend who is hiding a dark secret. All this makes for a rich and interesting read.
I don't think this is the best of the Wallander series partly because I missed Kurt not being at the centre of the action but even a slightly below par Wallander story is still a very good crime thriller when compared with the most of the competition. 'Before the Frost' is probably not the ideal start for anyone coming new to the Wallander books. To get the best out of the characters you probably need to familiarise yourself with earlier novels. The plot is complex enough to keep you on your toes but written in such a way to keep you gripped. There is just enough of a mix between characterisation and plot driven action to keep both crime fans and more literary readers happy. Any Wallander book is certainly a good starting point to move into the darker world of Scandinavian crime fiction with authors likes of Arnaldur Indridason, Stieg Larsson and Karin Fossum.
Not being able to read Swedish I'm not in a position to comment on Ebba Segerberg's translation but the English prose seemed fluent and accessible so I have a feeling that she did a good job.
'Before The Frost' by Henning Mankell is available in paperback (480 pages) from Amazon uk for £4.97 Delivered free at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2011