The police procedural tells us a lot about our own world or worlds we are interested in. The most popular of these used to be set on British country estates where the upstairs-downstairs crowd congregated, then murdered each other. The solver of these crimes was either a suave inspector or an old lady.
Now, the preferred setting is Scandinavia: grimy areas of Stockholm or Olso, dingy little seaport towns, or Reykjavik. And the protagonists we focus on are everyday men and women, with problems much like ourselves, not the smooth, poetry-writing, intellectual, cool-headed academics from the UK.
Henning Mankell, the famous Swedish author, is now considered one of the great authors of detective fiction, on a par with Dashiell Hammet or Agatha Christie. He is compared with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish husband and wife team whose Inspector Martin Beck series started this trend. The somewhat demented protagonists from Swedish, Icelandic, and Norwegian crime novels, who look at their world like we look at ours, help us cope with what is sometimes seen as the great failed social experiment that is industrialized society’s social democracy—exemplified by the Swedish welfare state and the United States.
Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s complex, angst-ridden, and morose detective from Ystad, whose novels have sold millions of copies in the States as well as around the world, has finally come to American television audiences. Wallander’s saga was shown recently in a three-piece series, starring Kenneth Branagh, which started on May 10th, and ran through May 21st, 2009, with additional episodes under consideration.
We, in the States, are no stranger to TV mysteries and detective stories, especially the police procedural. When we turn on the TV, we are bombarded with cops, murderers, rapists, and all kinds of people with criminal intent. So Wallander, whose Ystad beat also presents him with perverts, is a more than welcome addition to that genre. Critics as well as audiences have been taken by the impressive interpretation of the Wallander character by the great British actor.
As portrayed by Branagh, Wallander is unhappy, hypertensive, diabetic, moody, yet interestingly perceptive. In the novels as well as on TV, Wallander deals unsuccessfully with an ex-wife who never did understand his job, an eccentric artist cop-hating father falling deeper and deeper into the grip of dementia, and a recalcitrant daughter. In addition, he has to solve the brutal crimes besetting his community. In the midst of all this personal chaos, he deplores what is happening to his society at large where young people commit crimes against humanity and injustice, racism, corruption, and permissiveness prevail.
Most agree that Branagh’s performance is brilliant. Now 48-years old, he can do so much with a look, a closing of his eyes for a second, a poignant pause – and tears. He is more brooding Dane than energetic Swede, but that is also fitting as Ystad was once a Danish outpost.
Viewers and critics are unanimous in their assessment that the opening sequence of the first film in the series, Sidetracked, was both visually stunning and horrifying. Here, Wallander has been called to a farmhouse because a young girl has isolated herself amidst the brilliant sunlit rapeseed fields, and then, after pouring gasoline all over herself, clicks a cigarette lighter, setting herself and her surroundings on fire. Wallander stares speechless once he realizes what she is planning to do—then runs toward her, shouting, but is too late. She explodes in front of him and his helplessness is palpable.
Not only is Branagh unforgettable in this series, but Ystad is, too. As the Mankell novels are as much about sociology as they are about crime, the setting is critical. Now Ystad is the prism by which we view not only Swedish society, but our own. We view Ystad’s town center – Gamla Stan – with its half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, and outlying estates. Ystad, beautiful and brutal—with its high winds in the winter, freezing rains coming off the Baltic, impenetrable fog that slowly covers the area like a wool blanket, snow, sleet, interminable winter—is a curiosity to us American viewers.
In both the novels and the PBS series, the old city is the second most interesting character after Wallander himself. Actually, scratch that, the town is Wallander, remote, dark, and brooding, except on occasional sunny summer days.
Once called Sweden’s window to the world, Ystad was an important port city in the 17th century, but in these novels, this is reversed: it is the world’s window to Sweden, with its problems as well as its failures.
Perhaps we are seeing Ystad and Wallander as the reflected image of ourselves and our own society. The United State’s great experiment in democracy has become tarnished over the past years. Much like Wallander, we try to solve the mysteries of our society, most brought about by decaying and failed political experiments. Much like Wallander, we continue to hope, we keep on going, and we deplore what we see and what our society has become, but dream of what it might be.
By Marge Thorell