Review: Henning Mankell – Firewall

Firewall (Wallander, #8)Firewall by Henning Mankell>
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mankell is a name new to me. It is only with subsequent research – all those Swedish names, you know – that I’ve realised Firewall is not only an international best seller, but also that it was adapted for British television by the BBC, (along with other Mankell novels), starring no less a light than Kenneth Branagh.

That’s what living in China does for one’s grip upon cultural developments.

My four-star rating is one I’d perhaps edge down rather than up, and I’m unclear what it is this particular novel has that may raise it above many another crime-detection novel. Our hero, Kurt Wallander, is a convincing enough character; a good detective, but necessarily flawed. Imperfect heroes raise any work, to my mind, to a somewhat higher level, but I failed to find any particular empathy with him. At the same time, I failed to find his flaws irritating enough for him to enter into the realms of an antihero. Perhaps his flaws are just a little too predictable, too sterotypical, and there’s nothing there in particular to mark out his personality sufficiently to differentiate him from the common herd. A middle-aged bloke less-than ecstatic about his job who hasn’t had his end away for a while is not an uncommon phenomenon. The odd eccentricity wouldn’t go amiss. For sure most of us have them, but at least we all have different ones.

The plot is competent. Given that the work is set in the 1990s, it may even be said to be prescient in identifying the vulnerability of institutions to a networked world accessible to hackers and other mischief makers. It’s taken until now for such stories to hit the news on any regular basis.

However, in the end I felt slightly cheated. The story kept me reading, occasionally taking in one chapter more than I could really justify delaying my sleep for, but there were self-confessed loose ends come the end of the novel. This troubles me insofar as, in the Real World, I’m sure such loose ends exist in detective work, but should they exist in a work of fiction dealing with detective work? How real do we want our realism to be? One for the literati and the philosophers, (both of which I count myself amongst in my humble, bumbling efforts, but I’m not sure of the answer on this occasion).

Then again, it may be that in the spirit of dramatic irony we, as readers, are party to those things Wallander didn’t get by the end, but I’d have to say that the complexity of the novel meant I must have missed a trick or two myself back there. I had most of it pegged down, but there were red-herring trails there I lost myself along from time to time.

Then there is the chapter ordering. Introduction to a new character half-way through the book who may have been better presented at the beginning, or somehow intertwined with the story, or perhaps Wallander could have uncovered sufficient background information to make the chapter unnecessary, I’m not sure which. However, there’s the sense of being given information a little tardily in following the course of the plot that felt again a little like a cheat.

A habitual completist, on this occasion I dived into the life of Wallander as a standalone work. I felt some regret I’d not become better acquainted with him through reading Mankell’s previous work, but not greatly so. On balance I’d probably recommend reading the Wallander works in order, but if you’re stuck on a desert island with nothing else to read you’ll be fine. Even if not, the work stands up well enough on its own.

I’m aware this review sounds somehow churlishly negative overall, so to finish off yes, it’s certainly true that the book, for me, has its stand-out characteristics in its flaws but it is, nonetheless, a work worth reading for the competence with which it is written and the page-turner quality people seek in such fiction. Some of the pillars and a bit of the tiling could do with attention for sure, but the foundation is solid enough.

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