Saturday, March 10, 2007

Firewall: Henning Mankell

Notwithstanding the title, I didn’t quite expect the world of computers, viruses, and security breaches in Firewall – somehow those subjects seem out of place in the Sweden of Kurt Wallander. So it was a bit of a surprise that Firewall was indeed about firewalls, though the connection seems a bit tenuous.

Apparently unconnected murders threaded today through meticulous police investigation is par for the course in police procedurals, and Firewall is no different. It has all the ingredients of a police procedural as it seems to come out from Sweden, be in from Henning Mankell or from that delightful duo, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

The other staple from this part of the world seems to be the plaintive reportorial tone (though I confess I read it in the English translation). About 100 pages into Firewall, Mankell (through Wallander) summarizes the case as it stood then.

Two girls went out and had some beers. One of the girls was so young that she had no business being served in the first place. Some time during that evening, they traded places. This happened at the same time that an Asian man came into the restaurant and sat down at a nearby table. This man paid with a false credit card in the name of Fu Cheng, with a Hong Kong address.

After a couple of hours, the girls ordered a taxi, asked to be driven to Rydsgård, and attacked the driver. They took his money and left, each going separately to her home. When they were picked up by the police they immediately confessed, sharing the blame and saying their motive was money. The older of the two girls then took advantage of a momentary lapse in security and escaped from the police station. Later her burned corpse was found at the power substation grid for southern Sweden. When Sonja Hökberg died, she plunged much of the region of Scania into darkness. After this event, Eva Persson retracted her earlier confession and changed her story.

At the same time as these events, a parallel story was unfolding. There was a possibility that this parenthesis, this minor story, was in fact connected to the very heart of the other occurrence somehow. A divorced computer consultant by the name of Tynnes Falk cleaned his apartment one Sunday and then went for an evening walk. He was later found dead in front of an automatic teller machine nearby. After a preliminary investigation that included a conclusive autopsy report, the police eliminated any suspicions of possible crime and considered the case closed. Later the body was removed from the morgue and an electrical relay from the Ystad substation was left in its place. Falk’s apartment was also robbed in conjunction with these latest events, and at least a diary and a photograph were missing.

At the periphery of all these events, figuring as a face in a group photograph and as a customer in a restaurant, was an Asian man.

The use of a young nerd Robert Modin as an unofficial aid in the investigation, did seem a bit jarring; but considering that Modin plods away pretty much like the police do in Mankell’s works reassures you (his dietary habits are interesting!). And the fact that Modin comes up with data-based hypotheses without sounding like a superman rings true to form.

The typical insights into how the main investigator Kurt Wallander functions are there as well – his meticulousness and patience (“I’m proceeding too quickly”), his obsession with playing with facts from different angles (“he wrote out the facts again, this time from the perspective that all that had happened was part of a well-planned, act of sabotage”), and his relentless attempts to suppress his own angles and get alternative perspectives (“if I hear your voice, at least I won’t be hearing my own thoughts for a while”). The social commentary on Sweden, bleak as it sounds, is a delightful aside of Firewall.

As you would expect with police procedurals, not all the crimes are solved – there certainly are some loose ends. But Firewall does seem to have a bit too much of that – almost all the murders in the book are either only blandly resolved (one of the murders is not even a murder; though the character is an antagonist) or are not resolved. And the fact that all the murders are connected does seem a bit glib.

But the biggest letdown in Firewall is the dimension of the meta-plot – it seems a bit far-fetched and global in its impact, and the antagonists are not characterized in sufficient detail to make us believe that they can actually pull it off. May be in the world of technology, you don’t need a horde of terrorists to stymie the world, but a half-crazy duo still needs to have the credentials to stop the world. Carter and Falk just don’t have the force of character to convince me.

But for Wallander’s sake, go behind the Firewall.


Peter said...

I'm not sure the duo made credible world-stoppers, but I thought the combination of small-city police procedural and world-stopping international thriller was pretty daring. Firewall is the book that got me started on Mankell.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

De Scribe said...

Yes, Peter, the combo is intriguing - just that in this case, I felt it was a bit stretched. Have you read The Dogs of Riga? I thought it was a bit more credible there.

Peter said...

It's odd you should mention The Dogs of Riga. I don't remember how technology figured in that novel, but I did like the book the best of the several Kurt Wallander novels that I've read, so something must have worked.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"