Sunday, February 17, 2008

One Step Behind: Henning Mankell

It’s about a quarter of the way into One Step Behind. Kurt Wallander is interviewing Eva Hillström, the mother of one of the murdered teenagers. It’s a routine enquiry, one of many that dot a typical police investigation. Wallander shows Eva a photograph of a suspect; Eva doesn’t recognise the person. Then Wallander shows Eva a photocopy of a group photograph, one member of the group being Eva’s daughter, Astrid. Quietly, Eva goes in and comes back with an original copy of the picture, hands it to Wallander, and says, rather dryly I’d imagine, “Photocopies are never as good as the original.” Wallander questions her on the photograph, and finds out the name of one of the people in it. Immediately, he whips out a notebook and jots down the details.

When I read this sequence, all of two pages long, I almost let out a loud “yoo hoo”. Now this investigation did not quite lead (at least not directly) to a very significant breakthrough. Nor was it an exhibition of exemplary intelligence. Of course, it was no stroke of inspiration – inspiration does not have much of a role in a real police procedural. So what led to my exhilaration?

I think it kind of drove the point in, the real charm of a police procedural – a series of routine activities, with information and clues hidden within, which need to be identified and mined further till you get to the bottom. A quiet digging into the recesses of the unknown until the crime unveils itself, almost as a matter of course. That is what One Step Behind is – a typical good police procedural.

The plot is simple enough – three teenagers disappear; foul play is suspected; Wallander and his cohorts are called in; seemingly unrelated, a police officer turns up dead; the bodies of the teenagers surface later; a fourth friend of the three teenagers is also murdered; the police plough their way through amidst pressure from their bosses, from the families of the victims, from the press and from the public; finally they cotton in on the murderer.

What makes One Step Behind (and as an extension, many of Henning Mankell’s works) so gripping is that it manages to capture the mode and mood of police investigation through the language and tone of the narrative (mention must be made also of the splendid translation by Ebba Segerberg) – the matter-of-fact reporting of the murder with no fuss or dramatics, the precise and detailed descriptions (even if much of the detail does not quite further the investigation), the sudden-yet-subtle changes in tempo as the police close down on the suspect, and the frustrations of the job, as evidenced in this splendid summing up.

It had often seemed to Wallander that police work was characterised by a series of expectations that were inevitably disappointed.

And in this insightful, truthful but essentially not-so-useful comment.

A murderer is always crazy. But he can also be cunning and cowardly. He can be like you and me.

Of course, One Step Behind is not without its gaps, especially one particularly gaping one. Wallander manages to catch hold of a suspect, but lets her slip by allowing her to visit the ladies’ room unaccompanied. It does take the sheen off an otherwise great book.

For me, the most alluring charm of One Step Behind is one of its more insignificant details – Kurt Wallander has diabetes. No, as he says, he has excess sugar in his blood. It lends a certain mortality and frailty to the character and thus raises the book a notch or two. The more impressive aspect of it is that Mankell leaves the affliction aside – he does not succumb to the temptation of getting it to play a significant role in the plot. That could’ve just undone the whole book.