Internationally acclaimed author Henning Mankell has written eleven Kurt Wallander mysteries. The books have been published in forty countries and consistently top the bestseller lists in Europe, receiving major literary prizes (including the UK's Golden Dagger for Sidetracked) and generating numerous international film and television adaptations. He has also published many other novels for children, teens, and adults. In addition, he is one of Sweden's most popular dramatists.
Born in 1948, Mankell grew up in the Swedish village Sveg. He now divides his time between Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as a director at Teatro Avenida. He has spent many years in Africa, where a number of his novels are set.
Give the Man a Break: KURT WALLANDER
The average American hard-boiled detective is as well known for busting wise-guys as he is for muttering wise-cracks, but Europe’s most recent hard-boiled incarnations are not so full of bravado. Rather, they seem to echo the sense of overwhelming chaos that has come with the quickening modernization of our world.
Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s Swedish police commissioner from the small town of Ystad, is a perfect example. The over-tired policeman’s health is less than perfect given his preference for fast food, coffee, alcohol, and little sleep. Middle-aged and divorced from his wife Mona (which he still regrets), Wallander lives the familiar life of a solitary detective. Yet he is shy and longs for a woman who will understand him. He is the sort of man who asks each morning whether life has a purpose—not his life, but life in general.
Still more typical of modern life is Wallander’s strained relationship with his aging father, who lives on a farm near Ystad, where he paints Swedish landscapes, alternately with or without a wood grouse. His failed attempts to reconcile himself with his stern father’s disapproval of his career as a policeman remains a constant source of consternation for Wallander. Each time he fails to visit his father because of his job, readers cannot help but feel sympathy for this awkwardly helpless guardian of the law.
We can see less clearly into Wallander’s inner thoughts than we can the details surrounding him. It is common for Wallander’s interior dialogue to be disrupted by the cruelty of the gruesome murders he must investigate, as if he never has time to find himself. The society that Wallander must occupy is one that has fractured under cultural shifts in race, equality, and morality, and ceaselessly draws Wallander and his associates back into the savage brutality it reaps. Henning Mankell explains the force behind Wallander’s drive:
“I wanted to write about how difficult it is to be a good police officer. Police officers often tell me they know things are changing quicker than they can deal with, that society’s outracing them. But Wallander’s never cynical. He never says, “I don’t care about that.” Naturally that damages him, but he takes responsibility, and that’s what I love. He feels tired because the work is too much. But if he didn’t do the work, he’d feel worse, he would leave a big black hole in himself . . . I think a lot of people are struggling to manage now—feeling they are running for a bus they’ll never catch. In that sense, he’s a very common man. In Sweden, people write to him as if he’s alive, and can help them.”
(The Guardian, January 12, 2002)
So Kurt Wallander approaches each new case more skeptically, with increasing determination and ingenious intuition, which is to say, not so different from the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. In the end, the case is always put to rest, but Kurt Wallander is simply very tired.
1. One Step Behind begins with Inspector Kurt Wallander nearly being killed in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. What tone does this near-death experience set for the novel? What role does Wallander’s fatigue play in the events that follow?
2. Early in the novel, Wallander thinks of his colleagues: “They don’t know much about me and I don’t know much about them. We work together, maybe over the course of an entire career, and what do we learn about each other? Nothing” [p. 29]. In what ways can the novel be read as a meditation on the limits of human knowledge? Where else in the story does this lack of knowledge play a significant role?
3. In trying to fathom the murderer’s mindset, Wallander thinks, “I’ve never believed in pure evil. There are no evil people, no one with brutality in their genes. There are evil circumstances and environments, not evil per se. But here I sense the actions of a truly darkened mind” [p. 162]. Is he correct in thinking that brutal behavior is a result of one’s environment rather than of one’s character? What motivates the killer in One Step Behind to commit his crimes?
4. Wallander is often “struck by the feeling that something [isn’t] quite right” [p. 65]. To what extent does he rely on feeling and intuition to guide him in solving the mystery in One Step Behind?
5. At various points throughout the novel, and especially after Isa is murdered, Wallander is accused of botching the investigation. Are the criticisms brought against him justified? What mistakes does he make? Should he have been able to foresee his errors?
6. Wallander is an unusually disheveled kind of detective. Far from being a self-confident tough-guy, he’s forgetful, full of self-doubt, in poor health, prone to mistakes, and perpetually exhausted. Why do these characteristics tend to make him a more, rather than less, appealing protagonist? What would the novel lose if Wallander were more conventionally competent? What qualities make him a forceful figure, despite these weaknesses?
7. Wallander observes that there was a similarity between his murdered colleague Svedberg and the young people killed in the nature preserve: “They had all had secrets” [p. 210]. Who else in the novel has a secret? In what way is the novel really about keeping and uncovering secrets?
8. Martinsson observes that the killer “always manages to stay one step ahead of us and one step behind at the same time” [p. 394]. How does Mankell keep the reader also one step ahead and one step behind the actions of the murderer? Why does Mankell often allow the reader to know more than the detectives? What kind of suspense does this knowledge create?
9. Late in the novel, as Wallander and the other detectives come close to despair, Martinsson argues that the killer has no motive, that he kills simply “for the sake of killing.” When Wallander disagrees, Martinsson says, “Until a few years ago, I would have agreed with you: there’s an explanation for all violence. But that just isn’t the case any more” [p. 331]. Does this particular killer have an understandable motive? Or is he right in suggesting that violence in our time is increasingly senseless?
10. How is Wallander able to solve this mystery? What are the major turning points in his investigation? What qualities of character and intelligence enable Wallander to apprehend the killer?
11. What picture of Swedish society emerges from One Step Behind? How do the novel’s minor characters—Isa Edengren and her wealthy parents, the bank director Bror Sundelius, Svedberg’s cousin Sture Bjorklund, the mailman Westin, and others—contribute to the overall social reality of the novel? Are Martinsson and Wallander right in thinking that Swedish society is unraveling?
12. One Step Behind is preceded by an epigraph from the Second Law of Thermodynamics: “There are always more disordered than ordered systems” [p. vii]. And Wallander thinks to himself, “reality was rarely reasonable” [p. 98]. How is this disordered sense of reality conveyed in the novel? Which plays a greater role in solving the murder mystery in the novel: the use of reason or the reliance on spontaneous, irrational hunches?
13. Of the gawkers who come to look at a crime scene, Wallander says, “They probably get a thrill from being in the presence of the unthinkable. . . . Knowing that they themselves are safe” [p. 315]. Is this, at least in part, the reason why people read thrillers?
14. How does One Step Behind differ from American thrillers? What qualities distinguish the novel, and its hero, Kurt Wallander, as distinctly European?