Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Henning Mankell, New Lawrence Block

Crime time again. I was pretty stoked to see a new Henning Mankell at Rhian's store last week, and stokeder still to see that it was called The Pyramid: And Four Other Kurt Wallander Mysteries. Mankell, you might recall, is the contemporary Swedish crime novelist who spearheaded the Scandanavian crime wave, the end of which we still haven't seen. In his early books, he seemed to be channeling Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Swedish mystery duo of the sixties and seventies, whose ten novels are among my favorite books in any genre. I liked Mankell and his dour detective, Kurt Wallander, and have been following them for years.

I dunno, though. Mankell and I seemed to get a little tired of the series around the same time, and lately he appeared to have moved on to a bunch of non-series thrillers, none of which really caught my imagination. This book excited me, in theory--novellas and stories about Wallander, which were supposed to fill in some missing pieces of the series. Sounds good.

I'm not so sure the magic is back, though; and worse still, this book makes me wonder if maybe it wasn't there to begin with. Don't get me wrong, I still like this series, but these stories feel to me as though they're going through the motions, particularly the title story, "The Pyramid," which is a joyless exercise at best, presided over by a truly lame guiding metaphor. ("The pyramid" is a sketch Wallander makes while trying to figure out the crime, and really it's more of a triangle, and it doesn't help him solve it, anyway.) It reminds me that this series was always rather dry, if cut through with occasional flashes of deadpan humor; it lacked the ironic flair of some of the other prominent mysteries from the region. There are, of course, some of Mankell's trademark non sequiturs: "Martinsson walked into his office shortly before five. Wallander saw that he was starting to grow a mustache, but he said nothing." Or, "He stopped at the outskirts of Ystad and ate a hamburger, promising himself that it would be the last one of the year." But the rest is by the book. A mild disappointment.

The nice surprise this week is Lawrence Block's new one, Hit And Run. This is the latest in his recent series of novels starring Keller, the stamp-collecting hit man, which Mr. Saflo got Rhian and me hooked on over the summer, and in my view it's the best of the series by far. Unlike the others, which are constructed in an amiable, episodic, lackadaisical manner, this one has an actual plot, and it's a good one. Keller is on the road for one last job, but before he can pull it off, he ends up getting framed for the murder of the governor of Ohio. He goes into hiding, and has to figure how to avoid the authorities and assemble a new life for himself. The real success here was in putting Keller through the paces of a sustained narrative without snuffing out his sense of humor--the book is as funny and charming as anything of Block's I've read.

After sampling a few of Block's other series mysteries (the dude writes a LOT of freaking books), Rhian and I have come around to thinking that plot is not, perhaps, his strong point. But here, he's got his mojo working, and the material seems fresh and snappy. A few apparently meaningless early details come back to shock and delight, and though something incredibly awful appears to happen in this book, have faith, and push on through. There's light at the end of the barrel.

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