Thursday, May 21, 2020

One Step Behind - Henning Mankell

   1997 (Swedish), 2002 (English); 409 pages.  Translator: Ebba Segerberg.  Book 7 (out of 11) in the “Kurt Wallander” series.  New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Genre : Police Procedural; Murder-Mystery; Swedish Crime Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The three young people were last seen in southern Sweden on Saturday, June 12th, which coincidentally was Midsummer’s Eve.  On a lark, they apparently decided to spend the rest of the summer traveling around continental Europe, and once or twice they even sent postcards of their wanderings back to their parents.

    But the mother of one of them is sure that’s not her daughter’s handwriting on the postcards, and fears she’s been murdered.  She’s adamant that Detective Kurt Wallander and his staff begin an investigation.  After all, her daughter has been gone more than a month now.

    Wallander would normally oblige – the mother’s becoming quite the pest by now – but he’s got a more important case to work on.  One of his fellow detectives, who’s been missing from work the last couple days without calling in, has just been located.  At the apartment where he lived.  Dead.  With half his head blown off from a pair of close-range shotgun blasts.

    Shotguns don’t come equipped with silencers.  So how come none of his neighbors heard the shots?

What’s To Like...
    One Step Behind is another great Police Procedural by Henning Mankell.  Kurt Wallander and his fellow detectives essentially start from scratch as they try to figure out why someone blew one of their colleagues away, and the reader gets to tag along and attempt to solve the case before the cops do.  The same game is played with the three missing kids, who, thanks to the prologue, the reader already knows are dead, while the detectives still think they’re gadding around Europe.

    There are plenty of plot threads to try to solve: a.) who killed the detective, and why?, b.) where are (the bodies of) those missing kids?, c.) is there some sort of connection between those two cases?, d.) why did the detective, just back from vacation, tell his coworkers he felt “overworked”?, e.) how come the neighbors didn’t hear those shotgun blasts?, f.) why did the killer leave the shotgun at the crime scene?, g.) who is Louise?, h.) where’s the telescope?  A couple more plot threads arise as the investigation progresses, but this is a spoiler-free review.

    There was a very “realistic” feel to the investigation, as should be true of any police procedural.  There are lots of people to question, and most of the inquiries will of course turn out to be dead ends.  Yet somehow Henning Mankell keeps everything interesting.  The detectives work round the clock, and the fatigue causes all of them, including Wallander, to occasionally overlook things and reach the wrong conclusions.

    I liked the setting: southern Sweden (the Ystad area) during a summer heat spell that just seems to go on and on.  There are some nice twists along the trail, and over the course of the book, my guess at the identity of the perpetrator(s) jumped around a bunch.  Not surprisingly, my final guess was wrong.  The book’s title references Wallander and his cohorts’ feeling that they were always one step behind the both killer(s)’ (jeez, how do you properly punctuate that?) plans and the deceased detective’s own investigations.

    The ending is suitably tense, exciting, and plausible.  There is the obligatory chase scene, but even that is done in a realistic fashion - on foot and at night.  I thought the epilogue was also deftly done.  It resolves a couple remaining plot threads, and features two interviews involving Wallander.  He fields questions from a colleague’s teen-aged son, who is considering becoming a policeman, to which Wallander does his best to be both honest and upbeat, which isn’t easy for him.  The second interview involves questioning the perp(s), where both Wallander and the reader learn that serial killers are not always depraved monsters.

Kewlest New Word ...
Kick-sled (n.) : a sled popular in Scandinavia that consists usually of a low seat on runners and that is propelled usually by one holding the back of the seat, standing on a runner with one foot, and pushing with the other. (Wikipedia it.)

    Wallander and Gertrud would go through the last few boxes of his father’s belongings.  They had finished packing the week before.  His colleague Martinsson came out with a trailer and they made several trips to the dump outside Hedeskoga.  It occurred to Wallander, who was experiencing a growing sense of unease, that what remained of a person’s life inevitably ended up at the nearest dump.
    All that was left of his father now – aside from the memories – were some photographs, five paintings, and some boxes of old letters and papers.  Nothing more.  (loc. 206)

    “It’s just strange that the perpetrator would leave his weapon behind.”
    Wallander nodded.  That had been one of his first thoughts.
    “Have you noticed anything else strange around here?” he asked.
    Nyberg narrowed his eyes.
    He said, “Isn’t everything about a colleague having his head blown off strange?”  (loc. 1121)

Kindle Details…
    One Step Behind is priced at $9.99 right now at Amazon.  The other books in the series range in price from $7.19 to $11.99, except for Book 2, The Dogs of Riga, which apparently is not available as an e-book.  There are another dozen or so Henning Mankell e-books for the Kindle; those are in the $8.99-$13.01 range.

“All houses have ghosts,” she said.  “Except the newest ones.”  (loc. 363 )
    There’s not much to gripe about in One Step Behind.  If you can't stand cusswords in the books you read, please note that there are 16 instances of that here, 10 of which are the word “hell”.  For a gritty police procedural novel, that’s actually quite clean.

    Kurt Wallander’s persona is pretty much a downer throughout the whole series, and One Step Behind is no exception.  Here his usual “burnt-out cop” demeanor is uncharacteristically low-key here, but he’s approaching 50, and has just found out he’s developed diabetes and needs to change his diet and exercise habits.  He does not react well to this new reality.  I am not diabetic, but I gained some new insight into how deeply that impacts a person’s life: always being tired, always being thirsty, always having to go to the bathroom, etc.  I now have a greater respect for those who have to deal with diabetes.

    That’s about it.  As a writer of police procedurals, Henning Mankell (1948-2015) is in a class by himself, and One Step Beyond is another superb effort by him.  This was a real page-turner for me, and that's not something I say about many books.

    9 Stars.  One last note:  on page 79 there's a brief mention of a Baroque composer named Dieterich Buxtehude.  I’m a classical musical enthusiast, and I was surprised that I’d never heard of him.  He’s real, there’s a Wikipedia page for him, and it turns out he was Johann Sebastian Bach’s teacher.  I listened to some of his music via YouTube, and he’s impressive.

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