Vacation Reading: Firewall

Firewall by Henning Mankell

By Damon Griffin

A good mystery book can be hard to find. There are so many of them, lining the shelves of bookstores in their colorful, trashy paperback designs, it can seem impossible to figure out which ones are worth your time and which are simply trashy paperbacks. The Swedish writer Henning Mankell is, in a way, no exception: his books are also sleekly color-coded, sometimes taking up most of a shelf in the Mystery section, with names such as The Fifth Woman, One Step Behind and Faceless Killers.

But his book Firewall, at least, certainly is a page-turner. Firewall begins with a man leaving his apartment to use an ATM down the street when he suddenly falls over and dies. The following chapters then follow Kurt Wallander, the recurring protagonist of Mankell’s novels, who is a police investigator in Malmo, Sweden. He is nearing fifty and is one of the top officers in the police department; he is also divorced, curmudgeonly and alone. When a taxi driver is murdered by two teenage girls, he is assigned to lead an investigation into the murder. At least one startling development happens every chapter; first, Wallander gets word of the man from Chapter One, who apparently died of a heart attack; then he begins to realize that he could not have died ‘naturally’ and that his death is intrinsically related to the Taxi drivers’ murder. Then, half of the Swedish county of Scania is caught in an electrical blackout. Then, one of the girls who murdered the Taxi driver is found dead, in a most gruesome way that happened to cause the blackout. Then, there is an attempt on Wallander’s life.

It is not unusual for a mystery novel to juxtapose the twists and turns of the mystery itself with the personal life of the detective or police officer at the center of the story. In between bouts of police procedural in Firewall, we follow Wallander as he places a singles ad in the classified section of a newspaper, speaks with his working, twenty-something daughter on the phone, meets up with an old friend who is about to move away and copes with a scandal that involves a photograph of him slapping one of the girls who committed the taxi driver murder. But the book employs a similar technique of shifting to various viewpoints as the story progresses; this is done infrequently and that is precisely why the technique is so startling and interesting. Mostly, we follow Wallander and hear his thoughts, but a chapter might end homing in on a character who is a complete stranger, allowing us to realize that they are one of the criminals Wallander is trying to catch. A chapter might also start in another country entirely; focusing on another character who we come to understand is the ultimate puppet master in the whole mystery, and spending an entire chapter on him. Mankell only makes the criminals seem ominous, elusive and cold when we are following the police force in its’ investigation, but when the focus occasionally shifts to the bad guys perspective, they are always portrayed as just as human as Kurt Wallander, and perhaps possessed by a similar mental thought process when working, even if they know considerably more than he does.

Firewall is a frequently silly book as well. There are logical inconsistencies, implausibilities and some dialogue that is so functional to the plot that it sounds awkward in a realistic sense. I suspect that this is not simply a translation problem. But Firewall is still one of the more fast-paced and delightful mysteries that I’ve come across recently and Mankell truly has the form nailed down.

The Alibi

I read The Alibi by Sandra Brown.  This is the first book by her that I’ve read, though she’s a pretty popular mystery author.  I actually read an excerpt of it in a magazine many years ago, and it stuck in my head-so when I saw it on the recreational reading shelf, I knew I had to check it out! It’s set in a very sultry Charleston, South Carolina and opens with the murder of wealthy, sleazy real estate magnate, Lute Pettijohn.  Hammond Cross is the young attorney of sterling character and pedigree, who hopes to use the case to cement his ascent to lead prosecutor.  (We learn that in South Carolina, “County Solicitor” is the correct term, in place of “District Attorney”).  Brown weaves together a tangled web of over-the-top Southern characters.  There are intersecting love triangles involving Hammond Cross, his cut-throat professional rival, Pettijohn’s drunken socialite widow, and the obsessive investigating detective.  But the story’s real tension revolves around “the alibi”-Hammond’s rendezvous with a mysterious stranger, who becomes the prime suspect in the Pettijohn case.  And neither she nor he, are about to reveal their relationship.  It’s a legal ethics minefield and probably pretty far-fetched, but I still found The Alibi to be absorbing and exciting. Pick it up to enjoy over the last weekend of summer!

Summer Reading

With the new warm weather, and 70+ degree temperatures, I’ve been thinking about Summer Reading.  Though April’s a little premature for summer, we’re going to add a Summer Reading Category to Snell Snippets.  Bloggers can add their favorite summer reading picks.  (Or bemoan summer reading assignments-The Odyssey is one that I’d put in that category!) I like mysteries in general, and particularly classic, 19th century ones in the summer. In the past that’s included books like The Woman in White. This summer, I’m looking forward to reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and possibly Armadale.  I also like the kind of beach reading that you can read in a day.  One of my best friends keeps up a steady diet of Trollope and Eliot throughout the summer, but I’m not that disciplined!  What are your favorite summer reads? I also think that some authors and books lend themselves particularly well to summer.  F. Scott Fitzgerald springs to mind – I brought Tender is the Night with me to the French Riviera, but I don’t think the synergy was quite what I hoped for.  I’d also be interested in starting a book club, if people were interested in reading any of the same books over the summer.