In the days of constant police drama across the country, I’ve found myself inadvertently reading more Scandinavian crime novels than ever. This is partly due to the fact that they’re so accessible and easy to follow during busy summer travels. You don’t need to take cryptic notes about who is who and where you left off and all the symbols that you might with high literature.
There’s something enchanting about the thought of lying on a beach, totally absorbed in the most morbid of crime novels, trying desperately to determine who killed who and what is about to unfold and how you were right from the very beginning (I’m almost never right).
But I think there’s something even more absorbing, albeit psychologically confusing, when the cop you are rooting for, the one who is supposed to make the world a bit safer, is actually much more of an anti-hero than you originally planned for. He’s a human with flaws, as we all are, but he’s in a position where one would typically hold him to much higher moral and ethical standards. But what do you do when you’re rooting for someone who is not necessarily in this realm of high integrity?
Voila: here enters the curious case of Inspectors Wallander and Erlendur.
I recently acquired the entire Inspector Wallander series by Swedish author Henning Mankell, and I’m about halfway through Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series. Both are fabulous detectives in their own way, each with drastically different crime solving styles.
Essentially, both men are seasoned detectives with scarred pasts that fuel them to solve horrendous crimes. Inspector Kurt Wallander is the protagonist of 11 novels circling around crimes in the small city of Ystad in Sweden while his brother-in-arms, Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, gallivants about Iceland in search of villains. Erlendur was made famous by the 2006 film Jar City by director Baltasar Kormákur, while Kenneth Branagh plays the English version of Wallander in the most current series by the BBC that shares the same name (there’s been something like 2 or 3 Swedish and Danish series about Wallander).
Wallander is the older of the two series and apparently is, as the cover of The Pyramid, Sidetracked, and The Dogs of Riga inform me, a #1 international bestseller (though, to be fair, the Erlendur series has won the Glass Key Award for most outstanding Scandinavian crime drama in 2002 and 2003).
However, it surprises me that Wallander is the favored of the two when the anti-hero (Erlendur) is much more of a developed, intricate, and, frankly, interesting character. It surprises me further that fans of Wallander seem almost blinded to this fact; just take a look at the Goodreads reviews, and you’ll be hard pressed to find many readers who are not totally infatuated by this Swede.
Before it seems like I’m picking on Wallander unfairly, let’s review a bit about his character.
Kurt Wallander is an experienced detective with a very unique way of solving crimes, and I say unique because while reading through The Pyramid and Sidetracked, I became pretty frustrated by the fact that his way of figuring out whodunnit is through feeling.
And I’m not talking emotional feelings. I mean he literally gets a feeling that something is wrong and then, through the most incredibly monotonous, repetitive daily actions that are absolutely not vital to the reader’s context (i.e. Wallander makes some tea, Wallander makes a sandwich, Wallander takes a walk, Wallander makes his bed, Wallander suddenly figures out everything), he has abruptly, and often disappointingly, solved the crime. It puts the reader in an awful position of questioning this beloved detective, trying to determine if he is a fortune teller or a police officer. All the other police officers around Wallander are left to do the grunt work while Wallander “feels” his way through a situation.
Please keep in mind, I am not discrediting following your gut and using human intuition. But when this is your primary sleuthing skill, I become questionable.
On that same note, the manner in which the Wallander series is written, a factor that cannot be linked to the character himself, although the poor being suffers because of it, is almost annoying. Mankell is not a bad writer, but he leaves so much to be desired. His staccato manner of writing is so reminiscent of 4th grade chapter books that it takes away any type of suspense (though again, to be fair, Indriðason is mildly guilty of this also). There must be something about crime novels that permits writers to avoid details and focus on childish “…and then… and then… and then…” style sentences.
Perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow in the case of Inspector Wallander is that it is so easy to not feel any sympathy for him as a character, at least in the earlier novels. He only has one child, an annoying daughter, a character made only more excruciatingly annoying by the actress in the BBC version of the show, and we constantly hear about his past relationship with an emotionally unstable woman, his ex-wife Mona. He has a sister we hear very little about, and he has an elderly father who is still living but who is sort of a crazy artist and a cop hater. The two do not get along at all.
But this is sort of the extent of what we know about Wallander as a character. We don’t really know where he came from or how he decided to become what he is now, though some would argue this isn’t vital. I argue otherwise simply by pointing to how much more of a round character Inspector Erlendur is in comparison to his Swedish counterpart.
Erlendur is a despicable character. He has done so much damage in the lives of his children and his former wife, quite literally driving them to the point of developing drug and alcohol addictions. I’ve written a little bit about this previously in a post entitled Jar City & Friends for those who would like to delve further into the issue of Erlendur as an anti-hero.
Because of the deep psychological damage that Erlendur has inflicted upon his children in his abandonment of them, it becomes so easy to despise him. He is also a horrifically boring human being; he has no hobbies other than reading past cases about missing persons, he eats microwaveable sheep heads for dinner, and his picture is next to the definition of introversion. But what is interesting is that we are offered a back story to Erlendur: that he suffered a trauma in childhood that fuels him to be this creative crime solver and to find the missing.
Erlendur is a brilliant detective who solves missing persons cases from literally decades back, cases that one would immediately think there is no way in hell to solve. He travels across Iceland with the help of his comrades in the Icelandic Police, using logic and knowledge to piece everything together…not relying solely on his gut to tell him which way to go next.
Because of this context the reader is given, it is so much easier to feel sympathy for this character in comparison to Wallander. We are rooting for Erlendur to solve the crime and put everyone in their place, even if he is a horrible person. This lacking context of Wallander leaves him boring, flat, and unbelievable.
What’s the point in rooting for a detective who’s unbelievable anyway?