Sunday, 29 April 2012

"The Various Haunts of Men" by Susan Hill

I have recently read the first book in various detective series, and comparing and contrasting them is an interesting exercise.

I must admit to never having read anything by Susan Hill before save for Howard's End Is On The Landing at the recommendation of Simon Thomas. I had however read a lot about her, and knew that she was rated as a fine writer. Having now read this book, I would agree with this, but with qualifications.

The Various Haunts of Men follows the fortunes of the detective who will feature as the central character of the series, Simon Serailleur, and a thoroughly dissatisfying character he is too. We learn almost nothing about what makes him tick. On the contrary, we see him almost exclusively through the eyes of others, and then only to hear them telling each other what a puzzling person he is, who does not seem able to offer commitment to a relationship, or allow himself any feelings. I am sure this is a deliberate ploy on Hill's part, but it seems an odd approach to take. Perhaps things change in the later books. It is difficult to say more about the plot or characters without giving away what is meant to be a savage twist at the end, but I have to say that I guessed the ending (all of it) about half way through the book.

I think I read somewhere that she claims not to write detective fiction, but rather novels which feature a detective. In the light of that, I was expecting a Wallender-type experience, but this falls a long way short. When Mankell describes someone moving around their home talking things off shelves it somehow enriches our understanding of their character. Here it just feels like padding.

This is a good story and I am sure it will somehow end up on television, but it left me feeling slightly disappointed. It felt almost more like a women's romantic novel than a detective story.

Monday, 9 April 2012

"The Pyramid" by Henning Mankell

Patrick O'Brian said in interview that his only regret about his Aubrey / Maturin novels is that he did not begin the narrat8ive at an earlier point in time. Mankell obviously feels the same way because he has now published a prequel to his Wallender novels.

The Pyramid is said in the author's note to have been put together from various ideas about Walenderl as a younger man which he sketched out and then discarded. They form a number of short stories. Only The Pyramid itself is of any real length. They are an interesting read, from which the female characters do not emerge well. Both Wallender's wife and sister are pretty appalling. Yet at this time he still has a good, though distant, relationship with Linda. his daughter.

More importantly, Mankell decided to publish The Pyramid to make explicit something of which he became increasingly aware while writing the later books, namely that they formed a narrative debate on Swedish society, and in particular on what has become known as "the Swedish model". In the introduction he asks the specific question of whether, if the welfare state and democracy are seen an linked, one can survive without the other. Sjowall and Wahloo, of course posed this question bluntly in their books, showing that despite the level of welfare provision, crimes are still committed, and great inequality remains. From their avowedly Marxist viewpoint, this is the result of oppression of a gullible proletariat by a capitalist system. For Mankell, more a matter of human nature and his actually more puzzling.

Throughout The Pyramid, the same question keeps cropping up. What is happening to Sweden? Surely things like this don't happen here? There is a sense of dislocation between the dream and reality. Towards the end, Wallender is debating this point with a colleague. If the welfare state provides for everyone, why do people need to commit crimes? His colleague poses a disquieting possibility. Is it democracy itself which no longer works? If people feel excluded from the political process, unconsulted and ignored, perhaps they commit crimes as some sort of existentialist statement? Or, as he calls it, "a rite".

Mankell has always been a good, thoughtful writer who just happens to write about crime. The Pyramid offers another dimension to the Wallender stories. At least now one can read the entire series in sequence. If only British publishers would do the same for Fred Vargas.