Sidetracked

Despite my love of good crime fiction, I haven’t gotten into the whole Scandinavian crime fiction craze. Thanks to our international crime fiction month, I did manage to read two crime novels from the region (Smilla’s Sense of Snow and The Exception), but I was still lacking in experience with the authors who seem to be the current giants of Scandinavian crime—Mankell, Nesbo, Lackberg. So when I saw the audiobook of Sidetracked by Henning Mankell at the library, I figured I might as well give it a try.

Sidetracked is Mankell’s fifth novel about Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. Wallander is a fairly typical fictional police detective. He’s good at his job, but he gets tired of it. Despite his calm demeanor, the heinous crimes he sees bother him sometimes. His family life is a mess. He wants to go on vacation. You know the drill. He’s a fine character, and I liked him, but there’s nothing that made him stand out from so many other fictional police detectives.

The central mystery in this novel is a series of axe murders in which the victims are scalped. The crimes don’t seem quite random, but the victims are not obviously connected, so the Ystad police treat them as serial killings, a new area for them. They doggedly run down clues, considering and reconsidering every piece of information they gather. At the same time, the police are trying to uncover the identity of a young woman—a girl, really—who set herself on fire right in front of Wallander’s eyes in the middle of a rape field.

Readers who like to play detective as they read will probably be disappointed by Sidetracked because Mankell reveals the identity of the killer pretty early on. Although it might detract from some readers’ pleasure, I think this was a smart move because revealing it at the end would have seemed like a stunt ending. As it is, it just turns the mystery into more of a thriller, with readers wondering when Wallander will stop being sidetracked by other details and see the truth.

Some readers might find of the descriptions of the murders to be a little too gruesome, although they didn’t bother me too much. The story drags a bit in the middle, and for a while I pondered giving up on the audio and just watching the BBC version to see how everything turned out. I hung in there, and it did pick up. If I’d been reading the print version, I could have zipped through the tedious bits more quickly and would have gotten less frustrated. (When does zipping through become skimming?)

The plot borders on the implausible, but it turns out that’s kind of the point. There are some things we don’t believe because we don’t want to believe them, not because they aren’t possible. Much of the story here hinges on how the wrongs committed by adults taint the children who follow them. We want to believe in the innocence of youth, but what happens when that innocence is stolen? Things we don’t want to imagine.

This is the fifth Wallander book, but the first that I’ve read. Reading out of sequence didn’t turn out to be a problem. There was some background information that I missed, but Mankell fills in the gaps well enough, and Wallander is enough of an archetypical figure that I didn’t need details to get a sense of who he is.

Will I read more Wallander? Maybe. I’m not running right out to the library for more. I like crime fiction, but police procedurals are not my favorite crime subgenre. As procedurals go, this is pretty good, but I doubt it would convert someone who doesn’t like the genre at all.

Audiobook read by Dick Hill.

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6 Responses to Sidetracked

  1. Steph says:

    I haven’t been able to get into the Scandinavian crime genre either… I’ve only read two books (by two different authors) from that region, but both underwhelmed me, so I’m thinking that hardboiled crime may just not be my genre of choice (my favorite mysteries tend to be pretty light on gore!). I have seen some of the Masterpiece Theater productions of Wallander and enjoyed those, but perhaps that’s a function of Kenneth Branagh taking on the part? I have the first book in this series so I’m sure I’ll read it at some point, but I don’t know that I’ll rush to do so any time soon.

    • Teresa says:

      This wasn’t nearly as hard-boiled as I thought it might be, although I’m not against hard-boiled crime in general. The crimes themselves are really violent, but Mankell doesn’t revel in the violence that much. I haven’t watched any of the series, but I imagine if you enjoyed those, it’s worth trying the books. At the very least, imagining Kenneth Branagh in the role couldn’t hurt!

  2. the whole Scandinavian crime craze is so ridiculous. I’ve been thinking of maybe becoming a Swedish citizen, writing a novel and wait for the publishers to come running.

    I read the first Wallander and that was enough for me. I didn’t get a sense that it was a more mature crime story. Yes, he drinks…so do a lot of people

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! It does seem like all you need is a Swedish passport and a grumpy detective to get published and marketed like crazy, but I’d like to think at least some of the books are good. I liked this well enough but agree that there was nothing all that extraordinary about Wallander the character. If I get the urge to read something like this again, I might read another. I just don’t see myself devouring the whole series anytime soon.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’ve tried a lot of Scandi stuff in the last year or so, & I’ve found a few that aren’t as grim as the Wallander series. I love Asa Larsson’s Sun Storm and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Keeper of Lost Causes. Larsson’s heroine is a tax lawyer (sounds odd, but it works).

    • Teresa says:

      I think I have Keeper of Lost Causes on my list. I know I’ve heard good things about it, and I often like unconventional crime heros. (My new favorite fictional crime solver is a female Episcopal priest from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s crime series.)

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