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wallander's first case

29 july 2011

Laid up recently after eye surgery and unable to do much reading reading, I was unwilling to abandon reading altogether, and decided to venture into the world of audiobooks. My public library has a large collection of audiobooks, eclectic to the point of randomness. The newest are on MP3 discs, older ones are on CDs, even older ones on cassette tapes. Somewhere in the library archives there are probably books on LPs and 78s and wax cylinders, and for those unable to play any of these media, the library no doubt lets you borrow somebody's grandmother for the weekend to come read you Great Expectations.

I had recently read Henning Mankell's Troubled Man, an account of detective Kurt Wallander's last case, so I was intrigued by the audio version of "Wallander's First Case." While good translations (like Ebba Segerberg's brilliantly straightforward renditions of Mankell) are often seen as transparent, the reader of an audiobook is extremely conspicuous, so I'll start with him. Dick Hill, reader of "Wallander's First Case," is pretty good: deliberate, crisp, emphatic. His handling of different characters is for me slightly too heavy-handed, though I have few benchmarks to go by; I am not sure how much dramatic and phonetic distinctiveness different readers give to their characters. Hill does well with cranky old men, but his women characters tend to sound like stereotypically whiny gay men.

And there are several important women characters in "Wallander's First Case," which as always is as much about our hero's unmanageable personal life as it is about his murder investigations. It's 1969, and the young Wallander is dating Mona, who we know will become in turn his wife, his ex-wife, and the incredibly annoying alcoholic millstone around the neck of his grown daughter Linda, who is barely contemplated at this point. Mona probably should sound like a stereotypically whiny gay man, but the rest of the women in the story don't have any reason to. And perhaps such a reflection is unfair to Mona. She's impossible, but Kurt Wallander himself is a jerk – indeed much of one's empathetic attraction to Wallander throughout the series comes from wishing he could be less of a jerk to everyone around him, and cringing when he isn't.

He comes by the jerkitude honestly. Wallander's father plays a large role in "Wallander's First Case." As usual, the detective's father appears in counterpoint to the main action, but his cantankerous, malicious, manipulative ways are clearly the source of both Kurt's brusqueness and his occasional odd patient fairness, as if he sometimes resolves not to turn into his own father. Impulsiveness and Sitzfleisch by turns are the characteristics of good detectives in the procedural universe, and Wallander's peculiar family of origin has given him both.

As in Linda Wallander's first case (Before the Frost), murder seeks out an unfledged cop. Both Wallander detectives are susceptible to what might be called Jessica Fletcher Syndrome: murder follows them more than the other way around. In "Wallander's First Case," the first corpse is Wallander's secretive neighbor. A gruff mentor named Hemberg (I think Hemberg; remember, I only heard this story) takes over the investigation and lets Wallander have his own head – all the while reminding him that cowboy-like investigation is strictly forbidden in highly-organized Sweden. Wallander ignores Hemberg (who we suspect doesn't quite believe his own scoldings), and proceeds on the track he will follow for about ten novels' worth of murder, investigating things in a mercurial, obsessive manner.

Does listening to a book (or in this case, a long story) count as "reading" it? I've always thought so. I have never been a fan of audiobooks (proximity to work, penchant for skimming and flipping pages back and forth). But as a pis aller they are quite acceptable. And the strong production values of Blackstone Audio make these Mankell stories much more than a pis aller.

Mankell, Henning. "Wallander's First Case." Trans. Ebba Segerberg, 2008. In The Pyramid. Read by Dick Hill. Blackstone Audio, 2009.