The Man Who Smiled
By Henning Mankell
The New Press, 325 pp., $24.95
As Kurt Wallander ponders the murder he's faced with in "The Man Who Smiled," he wonders: "There's a why and a who, but there may well be something else."
That "something else" is what sets Henning Mankell apart from most other crime writers. Others specialize in finding just the right motive for why Harry slew Sally and still others hew closer to the Agatha Christie whodunit mold, but Mankell is unparalleled for that "something else" -- the ineffable atmospherics of mystery writing.
"The Man Who Smiled" is not really the latest in the Wallander series, just the latest of the Swedish writer's to be published in the United States. Published in 1994, it completes the cycle of Wallander novels (a collection of past short stories is due out in the fall), bringing American readers fully up to date with the dour detective.
Here he's even dourer than usual, having killed a man in the previous novel, "The White Lioness." In this, the fourth in the series, we pick up with Wallander a year after he took sick leave to recuperate from the killing. His shame at that certainly separates him from most other fictional sleuths and lets the new reader know right away he isn't in Philip Marlowe land.
Mankell makes that obvious in more literary ways as well. No one creates murderous moods as well as he does. Take the opening sentences: "Fog. A silent, stealthy beast of prey. Even though I have lived all my life in Skane, where fog is forever closing in and shutting off the world, I'll never get used to it."
The doomed driver of the car in the opening chapter has more to worry about than fog, though, and his son soon lures Wallander out of his self-imposed exile. This is the novel that introduced the woman on Wallander's team, Ann-Britt Hoglund, which turns out to be one of the more interesting features of the book.
Unfortunately, that's not a compliment. It would be rewarding to report that "The Man Who Smiled" is a lost classic in the series, but perhaps its tardiness in seeing the light of American day is not wholly accidental.
As the plot unfolds, the question becomes: Is the super-rich captain of industry who's moved into the Ystad neighborhood responsible for the murder, as Wallander suspects? If so, could he possibly be as clumsy in covering it up? Our lips are sealed, of course, but these aren't the kinds of questions we usually ask ourselves in Wallander mysteries. Those are more deep-rooted queries in terms of the evil that men (and the occasional woman) do, both individually and as members of a new amoral world order.
In "The Man Who Smiled," Mankell seems more interested in scoring political points. It's a must for Wallander completists, of whom I certainly count myself, but it's not the one to get started on. (Mankell came out of the box with one of his best, "Faceless Killers," so there's no reason to begin anywhere else.)
There's also the kind of Hollywood heroics at the end that Mankell doesn't often resort to for his aging detective. It's always a treat to spend time with Wallander, and with Mankell's writing. He's given us high expectations, and they aren't quite met in "The Man Who Smiled."