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Book review: <i>One Step Behind</i> by Henning Mankell

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the cover of the book

In a genre where there is so much pulp churned out all the time, it's easy to lose faith in crime fiction. But don't despair, because Henning Mankell is absolutely brilliant, and he rises above the masses effortlessly. Faith restored.

The story

At a private Midsummer's eve celebration in a national forest, three friends meet up to drink, eat, and make merry. But they aren't alone. The person watching them has a meticulous plan. Firstly, the deaths of the friends. Then, the elaborate hiding of the bodies. All of which has been painstakingly planned to the last detail. And who knows if the killer will stop there?

Kurt Wallander has problems of his own. He's not yet fifty, but he's suffering from exhaustion, he's thirsty all the time, and he definitely isn't looking after himself. Also dealing with the death of his father, he certainly doesn't feel like he has the time or energy to look into the hysterical ramblings of a woman who has heard from her holidaying daughter, but thinks there's something wrong. The woman is persistent, and Wallander thinks she might be onto something, so he prepares himself to look into her case.

And then, the shocking violent death of one of their own.

As Wallander investigates, he discovers that his colleague was most likely killed because he got too close to a case he was working in secret. But what had he known that the rest of the police didn't, and which aspect had gotten him killed? Wallander has to work this fast and hard and smart, to catch an utterly ruthless and intelligent killer who always seems to be one step ahead.

The style

Mankell is just dynamite. It really isn't often that somebody of such actual literary talent turns himself to crime, and I'm not saying that to be a snob, it's just that a lot of crime is very pulpy and not overly well written. But Mankell makes crime highbrow, and I love him for it. Maybe he's at an advantage because he's Swedish. Perhaps they're just culturally better at delivering well rounded crime. It is distinctly different from the Americans and the Australians, maybe a bit closer to the Brits in tone, who I have a pretty high regard for. Whatever it is that makes him great, it works.

So One Step Behind is written in the third person limited, focussing primarily on repeat character Kurt Wallander, but switching occasionally to the killer. It's nicely executed because the reveal of the killer's personality is done just flirtatiously enough that we as the reader know only slightly more about him than the police, and it's tantalising yet suspenseful right up to the reveal to Wallander.

Kurt Wallander is a fantastic, fallible, and human character. In One Step Behind, Wallander is coping with his father's recent death, and issues in his own family. He's also suffering from the physical symptoms of diabetes, which is an additional problem for his character to deal with (as well as being responsible for solving a massive crime, obviously). The manner in which he deals with this is heart-wrenchingly human. He's ashamed to admit his problem, as though diabetes is something he brought upon himself, and combined with his weight issues means it's just something he doesn't want to talk about, even with doctors. There are frequent descriptions of his shame, and the way he pictures his blood thick with lumps of sugar. Obviously it doesn't relate directly to him being a police officer, but it shows him in such a human light, and highlights the fact that police investigators aren't just people who stride around occasionally discussing how policework puts a straight on their marriage but they always manage great makeup anyway, circa Law and Order.

Which brings me to another element of the realism; the actual hard work. These cops work all around the clock, they're exhausted and understaffed and they often hit dead ends. I don't know if I'm describing it very well because you could interpret that as boring, but it isn't, because they're working against the clock against a killer. The red herrings are all totally viable, though, and I really like the fact that there is really no glamour in the police work. It's hard. And it's about perseverance, and sometimes people make mistakes. You know, like real life.

Now it may be a point of cultural difference or it may be the way Mankell sees the world, but the portrayal of women in this novel is mention-worthy. As well as his wife and daughter, and a couple of people involved in the investigation, there are a couple of high-placed female police officers, and Wallander's interactions with them are telling in what they lack. What they lack is that element of naturalised sexism so present in most American crime novels. The emotionality, the comment on the women's clothes, how they interact with male colleagues. Ooooh, you can feel the book saying, a WOMAN in the police force. We'd better make a huge point of difference. Mankell doesn't do that. These women display emotion, sure. But so do the men. These women have relationship problems, get exhausted, get close to breaking. But so does Wallander. What I'm trying to say is, Mankell has created female characters who are police officers because they are GOOD AT THEIR JOBS. I know, right? Novel. Who would have thought. And it is so refreshing. Mankells characters are all unique characters, and even the most stereotypical (fifty year old stressed out overweight cop anyone?) loses the element of stereotype because he is so beautifully dimensioned in other ways. Kudos.

Who is this book for?

Clearly, me. And those who are interested in reading quality, European crime. Take it on holiday! That's what my sister did, and then she left it with me. Ha!

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Thankfully, Mankell is a prolific author. He's written bucketloads! Yay!

In short


Title: One Step Behind
Author: Henning Mankell
Publisher: Vintage Crime
Year published: 2000 (English Edition)
Pages: 440
Genre(s): Crime Fiction
Review Type: