The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell: A review

A problem that I have with almost all the Swedish novels that I read (and there seem to be quite a lot of them) is that often the language is incredibly stilted. Since I'm reading the books in English and I'm not familiar with the Swedish language, I can only assume that it is a problem with the translation, that it must be especially hard to render Swedish into English and make it flow easily over the page. Nowhere do I notice this problem more than with the books of Henning Mankell. I often feel like I'm reading a Saturday Night Live parody of a Swedish scene. That was especially true with The Man Who Smiled.

We're now more than a year after the time when Kurt Wallander, the famously depressive, dour, angst-ridden Swedish detective, was forced to kill a criminal in the course of duty. It was self-defense, but still he is riven with guilt and has had to take sick leave from his job because of his emotional distress. He has tried unsuccessfully to find solace in booze and promiscuous sex, but in the end, he is more depressed and sick at heart than ever. He has decided, at length, that he will resign from the police and perhaps seek a job in security.

While he is pondering all of this on a beach in Denmark, a lawyer friend visits him and asks for his help in investigating his father's recent death. He had apparently died in an automobile crash and it was put down as an accident, but the son doesn't believe it. Kurt is too self-absorbed to really listen to what the man is saying and he refuses to help. A few days later, he learns that his friend has been murdered. At last something piques his interest! He decides to go back to work and to find out what happened to his friend as well as the friend's father - both lawyers. Not far into the investigation, someone plants a land mine in the backyard of the two lawyers' secretary. Then, while Kurt and a colleague are out on the road, pursuing their investigation, someone plants a bomb in his car and only his instinct that something is wrong saves them from being incinerated.

This is a complicated story involving a powerful Swedish billionaire with business interests around the world. Kurt comes to suspect that he is at the center of the evil that seems to be consuming Sweden, even though he is highly respected with an unassailable reputation. How will a simple police inspector, with limited resources and constant self-doubt and second-guessing every decision he makes, ever be able to crack the protective shell surrounding the billionaire and find proof of what he suspects?

These stories are interesting in their exploration of how the Swedish system of justice works and how police investigative units work. Apparently, it is a very collaborative effort with meetings every day to share information and brainstorm. Indeed, they spend so much time in meetings that - as one who spent much of her professional career in meetings - it is a wonder to me that any crime ever gets solved!

The personality of Wallander continues to be the prime point of interest to the stories. He is such a sad sack that often the reader (this reader anyway) just wants to shake him and say, "Get over it and get on with it!" So much agonizing over everything. It's hard to see how he ever finds the energy to get out of bed in the morning and go get his man. And yet, somehow, he always does.


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