It all started when lowly crime reporters spent late hours gleaning juicy stories from cops. Mostly, it resulted in routine dribble that the more seasoned hacks were too bored to file. For me, the day would end with my pulling two chairs together and stretching out to pore over the latest in crime fiction.
The routine banality of police investigations in Delhi’s underbelly was never quite as thrilling as the macabre world of Dr Kay Scarpeta, Patricia Cornwell’s middle-aged forensic pathologist, with her sidekick Pete Marino. Or the charm of PD James’s poet detective Adam Dalgliesh and the undeniable excitement in following Ian Rankin’s dour Detective Inspector John Rebus.
But all of this was before I discovered the surreal gloominess of Nordic crime noir — Hakan Nasser’s Van Veeteren series, set in the fictional town of Maardam in Sweden, Stieg Larssen’s Millennium trilogy, the adventures of Jo Nesbo’s alcoholic detective Harry Hole, et al . Even in these haloed precincts, no one came near the Faceless Killers eventually hunted down by the taciturn Kurt Wallander of the Ystad police force in the grim, wind-blown Swedish town in Henning Mankell’s series of best-selling novels.
From the early part of this millennium, Mankel’s detective, his dysfunctional marriage, troubled daughter and exceptional mystery-solving skills became an addiction which complemented my decade-long insomnia. Faceless Killers , who struck at an old couple in an isolated farmhouse at the dead of the night, started a journey made even more memorable by the arrival of contraband DVDs featuring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander in the BBC’s celebrated series.
The surreal landscape was as intriguing as the haunting central question in these mysteries: What is wrong with Swedish society? I remember Wallander pondering over whether not mending socks is a sign of transformation in the Swedish psyche. “We have stopped mending socks,” he thinks, a comment presumably on growing consumerism. The politics, always subliminal in what was mainly crime fiction, was nevertheless not skin deep.
Mankell called himself a “humanitarian socialist”, spending time in Mozambique, setting up a theatre and spending part of his earnings to support AIDS victims. Unlike his fictional detective, Mankell was a driven political activist. A life-long supporter of the Palestinian cause, he often compared Israel and its politics to South Africa and apartheid.
I tracked his political journey as a sideshow to the Wallander blockbuster. “I don’t understand what people do with too much money,” he wondered in a televised conversation with a friend. “I live comfortably. I have a house here in Sweden and one in Africa. But I wouldn’t know what to do with excess money if I didn’t have my work,” said he, who spent a large part of his earnings on the less privileged in Africa.
The truth, however, is that I never much took to anything outside Wallander that Mankell wrote, be it The Shadow Girls or the Man from Beijing , about the massacre of 19 people in a remote Swedish town. I picked up a few of these less talked about offerings but Wallander is the true obsession.
I have followed his heartbreak, a romantic caper in Latvia with the gripping The Dogs of Riga , the nail-bitingly tense The Man Who Smiled , The Fifth Woman and Firewall , till the last in the series, The Troubled Man , where my most beloved detective fades into dementia. Still, the hope was that like Rebus, Wallander would one day rise from the ashes. It was too early for both Wallander and Mankell to quit.