Are all Henning Mankell books similar?

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Faceless Killers (Kurt Wallander Mystery)

Scandinavian crime fiction seems to be everywhere at the moment. All the authors are compared to each other, despite the fact their books are very different in style. Henning Mankell has been on my radar for a long time and I was interested to see how his books would compare to the likes of Larsson and Nesbo. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that his books are the weakest of the three, but having only read a small section of his writing I wanted to check that I wasn’t missing out on his best work.

I started to read Faceless Killers (the first of the Wallander books) over the weekend, but I quickly became frustrated and abandoned it after 70 pages. Wallander appeared to be a stereotypical cardboard cutout detective and no attempts were made to bring him to life. There was no atmosphere and the plot seemed implausible.

I also struggled with the poor quality of the writing. The simplicity was almost child-like in places.

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed with the section I read.

Does Faceless Killers have a good ending?

Does the Wallander series improve as it progresses?

Are any of Mankell’s other books worth reading?

Or, should I forget the books and stick to the Wallander DVDs?

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  1. cbjames says:

    Your headline had me all riled up, but I’ve not read any of Henning Mankell’s books and have not liked Jo Nesbo or Stieg Larson much at all myself. I’m sticking with the Martin Beck series for now.

    I was just going to say that of course his books are all similar. The same is true for just about every author one can name. ;=)

    My advice to you is to stick with the television series you’re enjoying. There are plenty of other detective stories out there.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I’m afraid I disagree with you. I have found lots of authors who have produced very different books and even more authors whose first book is either their best or worst. A poor first book doesn’t mean that all the rest of his should be written off.

      I will check out Martin Beck though….

      1. Annabel says:

        You must check out Martin Beck – written in the late 1960s, they are the model for the rest!

  2. Steph says:

    I haven’t read anything by Mankell though I do have a copy of his first Wallander book, which I procured after enjoying the tv series. Not sure what I’ll think of it, though I do think I recall Richard over at Caravana de Recuerdos thinking the first book was a fun, if pretty standard potboiler. I haven’t found a single Scandanavian crime author who has really blown my socks off, truth be told, but I’m willing to keep searching! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I enjoyed Nesbo’s Snowman, but no Scandanavian thriller has excited me in the way Japanese ones do. I’ll keep trying them though – perhaps one day I’ll find one to blow my socks off!

  3. Laura says:

    I really enjoyed the series you linked to (with Kenneth Branagh). So I read Faceless Killers, thinking I might enjoy the books as well. But I wasn’t wowed, and there’s just too many other books waiting to be read!

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I haven’t seen any of the TV series yet, but I tend to enjoy watching crime dramas and have heard great things about this one. I’ve already added it to my DVD rental queue and look forward to trying it.

  4. Alyce says:

    Everyone seems to like Scandinavian crime lit so much it makes me wish I was into the crime lit genre. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, There’s a first time for everything – perhaps you’ll find one to love soon. :-)

  5. Ellie says:

    I find it quite annoying how all Scandinavian writers are compared to each other, they are as different to each other as American or British crime writers. I haven’t read any Stieg Larsson books yet but everything else has been quite varied.

    Just a thought, are all the Wallander books translated by the same person? I find the translator can make a huge difference.

    1. Jackie says:

      “are all the Wallander books translated by the same person?” Great question! I didn’t know and so just checked. They aren’t. There are a few different translators – might be worth me trying a later one to see if that reduces my annoyance at the writing style.

  6. David Nolan says:

    Jackie, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s up to you whether you read on or bail out. Here are a few thoughts from me that, in conjunction with other comments, may help you make a choice.

    After I’d read just one of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books – not the first in the series as it happened – my reaction was that it was not as good as Mankell. I’ve read a few Nesbo books since then. Overall, I think my preference would still be for Mankell. Having said that, Faceless Killers was probably my least favourite. It is not completely different from the rest of the series, so if you absolutely hated it then you probably will not like the others, nevertheless, I do think that the series becomes a lot stronger as it progresses. One of the things I like about them is their concern with contemporary Swedish life. I didn’t feel that Nesbo provided quite as much sense of modern day Norway in the Harry Hole books, though I have still only read three of them so it might be too early to say.

    There are many similarities between Hole and Wallander, beyond their Nordic settting: both have trouble with relationships and seek comfort at the bottom of a glass; both bend the rules to get results; both are workaholics who use their work to avoid facing up to other aspects of their lives. If you would rather avoid the maverick cop cliche altogether then you should perhaps follow cbjames and try Martin Beck instead? I haven’t read any of them myself, but they were spoken of very highly on a BBC radio talk last week which was on the theme of contemporary Scandinavian crime writing. It was remarked that, whilst they are often referred to as the “Beck” books, they are much more of an ensemble piece, focusing more on team work than on the actions of one individual.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Thanks for letting me know that the series gets stronger as it progresses. I don’t hate it, but was frustrated by the simplicity of both the writing and the characters. If the characters develop as the books continue then it might well be worth me getting into them.

      I hadn’t heard of Beck before cbjames comment, but I will try to get hold of a copy of the first book in the series as it sounds as though I might have more luck there.

  7. Al says:

    I read Italian Shoes by Mankell and loved it. Not in the crime genre but very good.

    1. Jackie says:

      Al, I hadn’t heard of Italian Shoes and didn’t realise that Mankell wrote some non crime books. I’ll take a look – thanks for the recommendation. :-)

  8. NancyO says:

    I love crime fiction, and I enjoy Scandinavian crime fiction immensely. Henning Mankell was probably the first Scandinavian crime fiction author I read, and on the whole, I like his novels. Like any other author who writes in series, some of the books are better than others. Faceless Killers wasn’t my favorite in the group, although I did like it, and on down the line there are a couple that just didn’t do it for me at all. Wallander does go on to become more fleshed out as the series proceeds; the first book of any series is always a question of whether or not you think this character is going to grow or become more real. I’d say if you’re not liking it, put it down. I agree with the others who wrote in about the Martin Beck series — they are, in my opinion, among the best crime fiction novels out there. Not only are they well written, they’re concise, to the point, and don’t wander off. The main characters are also very realistic. I also like Jo Nesbo, but he gets a bit over the top in his plotting, dialogue and characters sometimes to the point where I find myself doing a lot of eye rolling.

    One of my pet peeves are these constant comparisons to Stieg Larsson. Personally, I think books show up with these stickers on them to make sales. His Millenium trilogy was so popular, and I believe that publishers followed on the heels of that popularity to sell other Scandinavian crime writers that maybe weren’t so well known. But on the other hand, if it gets other authors’ writing out there, sticker away!

    Crime fiction is my guilty pleasure and my escape from literary fiction, and for the most part, I don’t expect great, world-class literature when I pick these books up. I think it’s all in what you want to get out of it — for me, it’s what I turn to when all I want is to be entertained and escape for awhile.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nancy, I love crime fiction, but I am a bit fussy when it comes to reading it. I like it to be realistic (or so well written I’m able to suspend my disbelief). I don’t expect highly literary books, but do spot when the writing is a bit dodgy (as was the case with Faceless Killers) but I do need the plot to be so engaging that these problems are minimised. I enjoyed Nesbo’s Snowman, but admit to a little bit of eyerolling! It sounds as though I’ll enjoy the Beck books and so I’ve reserved a copy of Roseanna from my library.

      Thanks for your help!

  9. Annabel says:

    I’ve read the first two Mankell, the first Larsson, and Nesbo’s Snowman, plus the first Martin Beck (see my comment above). Frankly, I’ve tried not to compare them, and have enjoyed them all basically and will happily read more of any of them when I can fit them into the schedule. (Ditto for all gourmand, anti-establishment Italian detectives, streetwise maverick Americans, etc etc etc).

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, You seem to have had a lot more luck than I have. Hopefully I’ll enjoy Beck more than the others.

  10. stujallen says:

    I ve struggled with the mankell I read little to deep at times for a crime novel ,I like my recent nordic crime novel best Jackie Asa Larsson ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I have heard Asa mentioned a few times, but haven’t been persuased to get hold of a book yet. Since you recommend her so strongly I’ll keep an eye out and see if the first few pages grab my attention.

  11. SEY says:

    Stieg Larson is not in in the same league as Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man, his final book in the series, is excellent. All the books in the series are not of equal quality but don’t give up on Mankell! You might try listening to them instead of reading them. The audio helps with the Nordic names of people and places. The language does not lend itself to long sentence structure, especially in English translation. I did not like Nesbo. Mankell, who I consider a writer of literary noir fiction, is good. Give him another try and I’ll try Beck.

    1. Jackie says:

      SEY, Listening to them is a great idea! Thrillers often work well in audio and if they happen to have multiple narrators then the dialogue might flow better. I’ll look into it.

  12. Jenners says:

    I haven’t read any Mankell yet but I’m about to try some Nesbo after seeing rave reviews.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I enjoyed Nesbo, but felt as though I was missing something as I started mid-series. The first two books are being translated into English next year so I advise waiting until then to start them.

  13. David says:

    I’ve never read any Mankell, or indeed any Scandinavian crime writers, but if you decide to stick to the dvds can I recommend the Swedish version with Krister Henrikkson over the BBC/Branagh one? I’ve no idea which is more faithful to the books (they’re very different interpretations both of the character and the whole set-up) but the Swedish series is far superior as a piece of television.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Thank you! Now that you mention it I do vaguely remember other people saying the same thing at the time, but forgot all about it. Thanks for the reminder of the Swedish version.

  14. Beth F says:

    I have Mankell on my list. When I get around to him, I’ll let you know what I think.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I hope that you have better luck than I did.

  15. Heidi says:

    The books have different translators I believe. I have only read the first two and the prequel. Dogs of Riga was much better. The first I also found really simple in the writing and I believe I even found punctuation error(s) or something similar. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it. I do like Wallander’s relationship with his father and how that develops. Also odd with the writing was the lack of physical description of the characters. I don’t think many were described at all and it was hard to picture people. I don’t know that I have ever read anything where you don’t know the hair color or build or something about what the characters look like. I like the BBC series much better and it is done very well. The scenery in particular is lovely in the series and Branaugh plays Wallander’s well and he is quite likable in a haggard goofy way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Heidi, I didn’t realise that Dogs of Riga was a prequel – I’m quite tempted to try that now, especially since you think it is better. I agree about the lack of descriptions. That is a problem I found with the book, but perhaps that is solved by reading a few more of the books (or watching the TV series to get images in your head – something I never thought I’d suggest!)

  16. Amy says:

    I haven’t read any Mankell yet but I have been enjoying the DVDs of the Wallander series that I want to try reading some eventually. I have a copy of The Pyramid which is a series of 5 mysteries and takes the reader back to Wallander’s early days as a cop..when he’s 21 or 22. I am hoping that this book might flesh out Wallander well especially because, over the course of the mysteries, he becomes a detective. I am disappointed you didn’t like Faceless Killers although I feel a little better since some of your other commmenters felt it wasn’t the best of Mankells.

    Can you recommend a couple of the Japanese detective fiction you enjoyed? I’m always looking for very good mystery/thriller books! Thank you, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, Out by Natsuo Kirino is the best thriller I’ve ever read. It is more a “will they get away with it?”, than a whodunnit, but it is clever, thought provoking and gripping. I also enjoyed Pierced by Ryu Murakami, but that is a bit violent. I haven’t read any detective fiction from Japan – the books I’ve read have all been crime thrillers.

  17. JoV says:

    I wanted to comment on this as soon as I saw it. I read only one book of Mankell “The Man from Beijing” and thought it’s simplistic as well but nonetheless like the political arguments in the book. Not particularly a crime fiction buff, I like crime fiction which is not really one or hard core ones at all. I seems to collect Mankell books along the way from the shops. First it was Italian shoes then Dog of Riga, both mentioned to be a good read. So I really look forward to more of Mankell.

    Having said that Stieg Larsson’s first and second books got me hooked so much that I couldn’t put it down. The clues and the twist of the first book was superior. I resent publishers comparing Scandinavian crime writers to him and now that I’m reading Jo Nesbo’s The Leopard, I just think it’s entertaining but he is a different writer and should not be compared with Stieg Larsson.

    It’s nice to be able to read books from Scandinavia and get to know a little bit of the local psyche, as much as you like to read Japanese crime novels I suppose. So much rave reviews from you on OUT, I really really should go read it soon! Thanks for the thought provoking post! :)

  18. Peter Prokes says:

    The best thing about books is that you use your imaginations and not someone else’s.
    50 people can read the same book and come up with 50 different scenarios.
    You just have to love books and the amazingly talented writers.
    Jan Peter Prokes

  19. Peter Prokes says:

    The best thing about books is that you use your imaginations and not someone else’s.
    50 people can read the same book and come up with 50 different scenarios.
    You just have to love books and the amazingly talented writers.
    Jan Peter Prokes

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