Henning Mankell's crime novels, originally published in Swedish, are now international bestsellers, and his detective Kurt Wallander has become something of a Scandinavian Morse - mildly depressed, constantly defying his doctors and his bosses in the pursuit of successive villains. Wallander's beat covers the rural region of Skane; this is a bit like setting a detective thriller in Padstow or, as the British crime writer Malcolm Pryce has done, Aberystwyth. Mankell likes to tinker with the conventions of suspense, allowing his murderers to narrate, or solving parts of the crime for the reader early in the novel but leaving Wallander to flounder. A major element of his work is barefaced social commentary; he selects issue-led crimes to discuss through each detective trail.
The detective genre has always supplied an outlet for social critique, from the jagged one-liners of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe to the feminist detective fiction of Sara Paretsky and Dorothy Porter. But Mankell's novels belong more strictly to a Swedish strain of polemical crime writing, exemplified by the partnership of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. In the 1960s, Sjowall and Wahloo set out deliberately to use the crime genre for social criticism, later claiming that they had planned to "come clean" about this purpose after their fourth or fifth book. Mankell claims that he began writing thrillers in response to the increasing violence and racism he perceived in Sweden. "I begin with an issue," he has said, "and then form a crime around it." In his first Wallander book, Faceless Killers, Mankell tackled racism. Since then he has turned his attention to Swedish neo-Nazism (The Return of the Dancing Master), apartheid (The White Lioness) and totalitarian communism (The Dogs of Riga), among other things. Like Sjowall and Wahloo's detective, Martin Beck, Wallander constantly strays from crime-fighting to dark soliloquising. In One Step Behind, Mankell writes:
It occurred to Wallander that there was a frightening social dimension to all of this. More and more people were being judged useless and were being flung to the margins of society, where they were destined to look back enviously at the few who still had reasons to be happy . . .
Later in the same book, Wallander concludes: "Irrational violence was almost an accepted part of daily life these days . . ."
Mankell's latest novel, Before the Frost, examines religious extremism. At its centre is a group of fundamentalist Christians, led by a "Messiah" who, though Swedish by birth, learned his extremism in the US, where he was the only survivor of a suicide cult. He returns to Sweden to set about murdering the sinful. Wallander is joined by his daughter Linda, now aged 30 and preparing to become a police officer herself. Linda is a chip off the old block: as pensive as her father, and as unconventional in her crime-solving techniques.
The shock denouement derives less from the revelation of the villain - clearly identified to the reader before the Wallanders catch him - than from a climactic allusion to global events. Aside from a schmaltz-laden and redundant epilogue, the concluding lines take place on 11 September 2001. At 3pm, writes Mankell, the detectives are sitting in the police station when they hear that "something's happened in the States". They crowd around the television: "More and more people filtered into the canteen. By the time the news report came on, the room was almost full." It is a characteristic interpolation, entwining events in Skane with religious extremism worldwide. Regardless of the crime, the moral of a Mankell novel is always the same - dystopian forces are massing to destroy the social-democratic dream.
The combination of moral seriousness with gore is curious, and it can seem as if Mankell wants to have his writerly cake and eat it. Sometimes the effect is clumsy, as in The White Lioness, in which the plot is overwhelmed by hand-wringing. In Be-fore the Frost, however, Mankell stitches soapboxing, starkly poetic description and Scandinavian melancholy together into something pacy and provocative.
Joanna Kavenna's book about the lost land of Thule and the remote Arctic, The Ice Museum, will be published by Viking in early 2005