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.