The Man Who Smiled, by Henning Mankell trans Laurie Thompson

Sleuthing for social justice
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Wallander's daughter, Linda, is a mere student, years away from becoming a police officer and the focal consciousness of Before the Frost. Inside the police station at Ystad, the southern Swedish coastal town Mankell has made so famous, Martinsson is as yet cordially disposed to Wallander, though we note here seeds of the rivalry bordering on hatred we will encounter in Firewall, perhaps the sequence's most powerful book. And indomitable Ann-Britt Höglund is but a new recruit, looked on suspiciously for her youth and her sex.

To help himself cope with angst, Wallander goes to stay in Skagen, on the tip of Denmark's Jutland. Valuing solitude, he is somewhat annoyed to have a visitor from Ystad, Sten Torstensson, a quiet-living solicitor with whom he used occasionally to go sailing. Torstensson has sought him out because he is worried: his father, senior member of the partnership, has died in what has been officially pronounced a car accident, just outside the sequestered Farnholm Castle. But Torstensson is convinced that it was no accident.

While Wallander forces himself to express sympathy, he refuses to get interested, let alone involved. He has decided to resign from the police force; cases like this belong to his traumatic past. But when he returns to Ystad, he learns that Torstensson has been killed - shot in his office. All thoughts of resignation evaporate; anomie and depression give way to determination to discover why this father and son died, and also to penetrate, during weather appropriately dominated by fog, the huge Farnholm-quartered multinational that surely connects up with the double tragedy.

The Man Who Smiled has in its art much in common with other Mankell novels. Its opening chapter gives readers a privileged but partial view of the seminal event. We move over to Wallander at a point before his professional (and personal) enmeshment in the affair. This is, here as elsewhere, just a bit of a cheat, since we are given information that the methodology of the novel proper - scrupulously following both police procedure and Wallander's arduous cerebrations - would otherwise block. Yet without such knowledge our emotional engagement would be the less, as would our admiration for Wallander's deductions.

The novel describes a clear if hazardous trajectory, from the meeting in Skagen to the routing of the killer. But all the time its real subject, as with its fellows, is the health of Sweden, for which Ystad is a convincing paradigm. The Man Who Smiled is set during the right-wing monetarist government of Carl Bildt, which diagnosed the Swedish Model as moribund, and whose buzz-word was deregulation. The Swedes voted Bildt out in 1994, though his legacy remains.

Wallander and his colleagues recognise that their country has changed, yet in their working lives they are still animated by that belief in community which was a cornerstone of Sweden's folkhem. It is this passion for a fair society, sometimes proudly acknowledged, sometimes borne as a private burden, which gives all of Mankell's novels their depth. The last scenes of The Man Who Smiled constitute a vivid vindication of it.

Paul Binding's 'Imagined Corners' is published by Review