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Good, but highlights a few weaknesses in Mankell's style
on 21 January 2005
I think Henning Mankell is trying to up the ante in the Wallander books. The early books were about criminals, often loners. There was always some connection with national or world issues like immigration or racial tension, but the clever bit was how one small event in Ystad reflected world trends.
Lately though, Mankell is concentrating on more and more unlikely situations to, presumably, give the books a bigger impact. The trouble is, it has the opposite effect.
The last book, 'Firewall', had Ystad at the centre of a bunch of criminals infiltrating a computer network with the intention of world domination. It spoiled the book somewhat. In 'Before the Frost' it's a group of religious fundamentalists (how topical) with a 'grand plan'.
And I think Mankell's problem here is that even he doesn't really know what this grand plan is. So he has trouble describing it. The actions of the fundamentalists are a series of pseudo-symbolic acts, like burning animals, and putting women-who've-had-abortions to death. It's empty stuff, melodramatic, and dull. It doesn't move the plot along and feels like Mankell was struggling with his material.
The rest of the book deals with soon-to-be police officer, Linda Wallander, and her relationship with her father, our beloved Kurt. But even here, the writing is untypically stilted, and there are some downright unbelievable scenes. For instance, Linda has an argument with Kurt at the Police Station and throws a glass ashtray at him, making him bleed profusely. I didn't believe this scene at all. Much of the dialogue in the book, especially between Linda and her father, or Linda and her friends, is highly unrealistic and difficult to voice.
When Mankell gets back to the things he's good at, the novel is fine though. He's good at describing the Skåne landscape. He's phenomenally good at creating tension, suspense and atmosphere. He's good at describing the way the police station works.
'Before the Frost', more than any other Wallander novel, makes you think about what he's not so good at: dialogue is the chief culprit. He's okay when it's police matters, but he just doesn't have an ear for ordinary dialogue like, say, the Norwegian crime writer Karin Fossum, which makes me think it's not just a translation problem.
I'm not sure he's so great at writing from a woman's perspective either. Linda's character is not nearly as compelling nor empathetic as Kurt's. She's at times gloomy, like Kurt, at times childlike, and girly, but rarely realistic. Her previous life events are what define her, and they're like something from a 'build a character' kit. I'm not sure I look forward to the next Linda Wallander mystery.
All these criticisms aside, I still largely enjoyed the book, though I found much of the melodramatic religious stuff tedious. There are moments of great tension and horror, just like in any Mankell crime novel, but it seems to be spread more thinly than usual.
It makes me glad there's a Kurt Wallander novel ('The Man Who Smiled') still untranslated. Somehow I know it'll be better than this.