“In a global world, a detective story can take place almost literally anywhere” : in Homage to Henning Mankell (1948 – 2015)


Mankell1Henning Mankell died today. A celebrated playwright and author, journalist and activist, he had been for the past 25 years one of the most influential  authors of crime fiction worldwide. Slavoj Zizek, in an often quoted article read his Inspector Wallander police procedurals as “the exemplary case of the fate of the detective novel in our era of global capitalism”.

Mankell(click to enlarge) 

Here is an excerpt from Zizek’s article (http://www.lacan.com/zizekmankell.htm):

 “The main effect of globalisation on the detective fiction is discernible in its dialectical counterpart: the powerful reemergence of a specific locale as the story’s setting – a particular provincial environment. In a global world, a detective story can take place almost literally ANYWHERE: there are today detective series taking place in the Native American reservations in the US, in the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, in Venice and Florence, in Iceland, in Brezhnev’s or Yeltsin’s Russia, even in today’s Tibet (James Pattison’s series with the Chinese police inspector exiled there for political reasons as a hero). History also poses no limitations: the “golden” 1880’s of the tsarist Russia in St. Petersburg, Julies Ceasar’s Rome, Alexander the Great’s court… There is, of course, in the history of detective fiction, a long tradition of eccentric locales (recall Robert van Gulik’s series taking place in ancient imperial China; even one of Agatha Christie’s novels – Death Comes at the End – is set in the ancient Egypt of the pharaohs). However, these settings clearly had the status of eccentric exceptions, this status was part of their appeal which relied on the distance towards the paradigmatic locations (London and the English countryside for the classic whodunit; Los Angeles or New York for the hard-boiled novel…).

Today, the exception (eccentric locale) is the rule – in contrast to the classic XXth century modernism, the global stance no longer needs to be asserted in the guise of a direct cosmopolitanism or participation in the global americanized culture. A true global citizen is today precisely the one who (re)discovers or returns to (or identifies with) some particular roots, some specific substantial communal identity – the “global order” is ultimately nothing but the very frame and container of this mixing and shifting multitude of particular identities […]

One can easily see how Mankell fits into this formula, and why his novels exert such an appeal: everything seemed to contrive to predestine him for the role of the “true artist.” The specific color that the locale of his novels brings in is the Scandinavian one with all the existentialist-depressive connotations best encapsulated in the name of Ingmar Bergman (and, as a curiosity, Mankell effectively is married to Bergman’s daughter!). No wonder that his formula of “police procedurals in Bergmanland” abounds with the topics of meaningless outbursts of violence, often suicidal one, miserable disappointments in love life, late middle-life crises and depressions, ridiculous failures of communication, all this staged in the expected “objective correlative” of Scandinavian bleak countryside with its windy rain, opressive grey clouds and mist, dark winter days… Wallander himself is an often depressed and slightly overweight diabetic in his late 40s who suffers regular panic attacks, divorced and with a confused emotional life; in Before the Frost, the last novel (not yet translated into English), he is joined by his daughter Lisa who, after a troubled youth, also becomes a police investigator. Are we then dealing with the case of the ultimate manipulation where the Bergmanesque setting evocative of high art is used to add a specific spice to and thus enhance the attraction of the detective formula?

Mankell does not play the game of someone like Friedrich Duerenmatt who subverts the detective formula: Duerenmatt’s novel starts as a detective story and then takes a non-formulaic twist (a murderer is simply not found; the confrontation with the murderer turns into a politico-existential debate; etc.). Mankell respects the formula: at the end of his novels, the murderer is discovered, apprehended and condemned; what he does is close to what, in his seminal essay “On Raymond Chandler,” Fredric Jameson described as Chandler’s procedure: the writer uses the formula of the detective story (detective’s investigation which brings him into the contact with all strata of life) as a frame which allows him to fill in the concrete texture with social and psychological apercus, plastic character-portraits and insights into life tragedies. The properly dialectical paradox not to be missed here is that it would be wrong to say: “So why did the writer not drop this very form and give us pure art?” This complaint falls victim to a kind of perspective illusion: it overlooks that, if we were to drop the formulaic frame, we would lose the very “artistic” content that this frame apparently distorts.

(From Slavoj Zizek, “Henning Mankell, the Artist of the Parallax View”)


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