I have watched with fascination the obsession that revolved around the Harry Potter series. I remember the pictures of the lines outside stores for the release of each new book and my sister-in-law using all her contacts to get a pre-release copy sneaked out for my niece. These compelling, addictive series seem to be the fashion of the day, especially for young and young adult fiction. I watch my own grandson, addicted to various mythology based series – Maybe at that age I too went through the rage of the time – various Enid Blyton series, Bily Bunter and a great favorite, the William books.
Even for a fairly rapid and compulsive reader, I have not been obsessive about a series or a fictional character for a very long time. The first Henning Mankell book I read was Daniel which I picked up one of my increasingly infrequent visits to bookstores, for the usual reasons (Of that, another time!) – interesting cover, interesting blurb, good things being said by writers I respect, new locale etc…But the book was well written and interesting.
So, I ordered a Kurt Willander book, since I learnt this is the series he is best known for. And surprisingly I was hooked – I have read all ten of them, one after another, between March and June. Before I got to the end of one, the next was already on my Kindle. And I have been wondering what it was about the books that kept me hooked, especially since I am not partial to the ‘mystery’ genre!
First of all, the approach is upside-down, with each episode starting with the detailed description of the crime. So there is no suspense to deal with, and the feeling ‘Oh! How come I could not work out the culprit”, while every one else could! The story always takes off, with the telephone ringing by Willander’s bedside – usually at unearthly hours of the night – a traditional land line in the early books set in the mid- 90s and later the cell phone (the last book is in 2005). From then on, its the interminable hours of dogged police work, the freak intuitions that push him along, the thin line he treads at the boundaries of legality, all leading up to the final unraveling of the case.
Set in the small town of Yastad in the Southern Swedish district of Skane, these local crimes have international connections. Through these connections, many major historical transitions, like the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa, the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, the rise of the neo-nazi like organizations are brought in, always from a perspective we don’t often see. The other interesting aspect is the slow but inevitable infiltration of technology, which is in the background in the initial episodes. But, there is the clash of generations, that we have all experienced, with reluctance for change among the older officers and the easy, enthusiasm among the younger.One glimpses the changes within Swedish society, through the conversations between the various officers, and the changes that are brought into the force. And the nature of the crimes change too, with cyber hacking and international monetary crimes creeping in in the later books.
As the episodes move into the 21st century, the inevitability of technology gets accepted and even the conservative Kurt begins to appreciate the large international criminal databases, the rapid communication networks, finger-print and face recognition soft ware etc… He at some point, admits that the typed and stored notes were better than the hand written ones to which he had clung on for a long time.
Much as these episodes are all interesting and different, it is the character of Kurt that is the center of the series. At the start, he is going through a difficult divorce and strained relationship with his only daughter. His subsequent passage through loneliness, multiple near-death experiences, an on-off relationship with a Latvian woman and most centrally his difficult relationship with his eccentric father. It takes him many years to reconcile with the death of his father and accept his daughter for the person she is. Of course, her decision to become a police detective is unexpected but one he learns to accept and then appreciate her life and its choices. He has few friends, is prone to depression, has all the usual marks of human fraility – and it is for this that he grows on you.
And finally, Skane itself! Sparsely populated with predominantly farming communities and few towns, you almost feel that you have been there. The land is bleak and the sea, with which Kurt has a close relationship, is captured through every season and mood. Every season is caught with clarity and detail, one almost feels the chill of the winter wind, the wetness of the sleet, the joy of the first flowers of spring!
If I ever, get to visit Sweden I know that I would head South to flavor the streets of Yastad, which have become so familiar.