Henning Mankell’s The Pyramid: Novels about the Swedish Anxiety

300h

Henning Mankell’s The Pyramid.  I’m a huge Henning Mankell fan, have probably read at least ten of his novels, all of the Kurt Wallender mysteries, I think, and even a Linda Wallender one (his daughter).  I discovered Mankell 6 or 7 years ago — I’d never gotten so into a thriller series, and I haven’t quite found anything else as addictive, although Mankell has opened me up to the genre generally.  A lot of what’s so distinctly great about the series has to do with the modern Swedish setting, social and natural.  I’m surprised no one has made a movie (perhaps starring Stellen Starsgard as Wallender), it would be great on film — the icy, cold, stark Swedish landscapes; the moody, mordant people; the eruptions of shocking violence.  Wallender is a really appealing detective, always brooding about his failed marriage, his difficult relationship with his daughter & father, sweating, drinking endless pots of coffee and too much booze too; he’s funny and has a real moral center, continually questioning the state of Swedish society which seems to him to be falling apart.  Many of the books are more or less explicitly about the changes Sweden has undergone in the the last decade or two — the fraying of the welfare net, the stresses of immigration, a shift to a more heterogeneous society and a new sense of embeddedness in a globally linked world.  Maybe that’s what makes the mysteries work so well, the sense of Sweden as this strangely homogenous, stable, harmonious society, filled with a lot of stalwart folks in isolated homes in the woods, that has finally started to transform in disruptive ways allegorized in crimes.  The series contains some starkly memorable images, like the young girl who sets herself on fire in the middle of a field (from Sidetracked).

Firewall, which takes place in 1990, is the first Wallender mystery, so would be a good place to start, but this volume would be as well: it’s a kind of prequel, written later but including several stories and one novella covering the earlier phases in Wallender’s career as a policeman in the 1970s and 80s. The five stories all have characteristic Mankell plots, all containing some epistemological mystery often hinting at a political/social subtext, but they get resolved much more quickly.  The longest story (a novella, really), “The Pyramid,” is excellent on Mankell’s eccentric father, who spends his days painting variations of the same landscape, sometimes featuring a single wood grouse.

In his introduction Mankell lays out the political/social subtext, explaining that after completing the series, he recognized the subtitle it should have had: “Novels about the Swedish Anxiety”:

The books have always been variations on a single theme: ‘What is happening to the Swedish welfare state in the 1990s?  How will democracy survive if the foundations of the welfare state is no longer intact?  Is the price of Swedish democracy today too high and no longer worth paying?”

I remember reading a Mankell novel off and on, can’t remember which one, sitting in the hospital room with Sarah during her 12-hour labor delivering Celie and Iris.

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