Mankell has become the author that every new European crime writer is compared to. He's the benchmark, he sets the standard. And justly so. His brand of intense, detail based procedural is probably unrivalled in its accurate picture of police-work. Certainly, I've never read a more compelling version of the hard, repetitive slug of investigation than his.
This novel is the final Wallander novel to be translated (even though we've already had the real "final" Wallander novel, and the first that features his daughter's induction to the police-force), though only the fourth that Mankell actually penned. Standing where it does in the series it is also possibly the first Great Wallander novel. The three which go before are good, but it it's with The Man Who Smiled that the series takes off. Readers new to Mankell now have the benefit of being able to read them in their proper order.
The Man Who Smiled opens with a disillusioned Wallander wandering day in day out along a misty Danish beach, riven with melancholy after killing a man in the line of duty (see the previous novel, The White Lioness). Only when he finally makes up his mind to retire does he return home to Ystad. However, when he gets there, disturbing news awaits him. An old friend of his, solicitor Sten Torstenson, has been killed in his office, shot three times. Wallander would think nothing of it - the official train of thought is some kind of break-in - but for the fact that Sten had tried to contact him while he was away. Sten was convinced that his father Gustav's death - his car overturned on a deserted, foggy road - was no accident. His father was a cautious driver, and would never have driven in fog. Too, in the weeks before his death Gustav seemed very worried about something he was keeping hidden from his son.
In the face of the new killing, Wallander's becomes convinced something sinister lies behind both deaths, and concedes to return to the job, heading the team investigating the lawyer's murder.
Much of what can be said about Mankell's crime novels already has been. His characters are compelling and human (this novel sees the appearance of Ann-Britt Hoglund, the female recruit who is such a presence in the remaining novels. This one too, actually); his picture of Sweden as anything but a snowy Nordic idyll is as impressive as Rankin's rendering of Edinburgh or Burke's Louisianna; he is a master of sinister and unbearably claustrophobic atmospheres (which contrast admirably with Sweden's huge open spaces), and his version of police-work is the most realistic I've come across, certainly the most nerve-bitingly tense. He's one of the best there is.
Part of the reason why it's all so engrossing is Mankell's mixture of details. He has a moody obsession with weather and the time, and he depicts a level of procedural detail that should be all rights be dull, but is instead riveting. Because of this he has created a very real impression, through the whole series, that the crucial breakthrough, the information which might crack the case wide open, could come from absolutely anywhere, from the most mundane of tasks.
The other great strength is, of course, Wallander. He may not be the most cheerful company, but he is charming and one of the most endearing of current detectives. In a way, he's more real than Bosch or Rebus, less of a hard-man certainly. Though similarly flawed, he doesn't really behave like either. He tends to throw himself into the investigations and constantly obsess over them to relieve his tension. And he gets angry properly: like a child. In Firewall his frustration becomes so much that he snaps and throws a chair across a colleague's office.
The Man Who Smiled is a bit shorter than some of the most recent translations, which only makes it better. Just as much quality is distilled into less space, so the whole thing is more powerful and also slightly faster. This one is actually the most conventional of Mankell's mysteries, and there are some excellent twists and turns here. The strongest individual aspect is the sinister figure of Alfred Harderberg - the multinational business Wallander becomes convinced is behind everything. He lives in a secluded castle, seems to be permanently unreachable, hides behind an army of wintry secretaries and is in the constant company of two silent goons. Oh, and he has a most unnerving constant smile...
Sadly, then this is the last new Wallander novel I will get to read (unless Mankell makes a spectacular u-turn). Good to go out on a high note, though: it may be the last, but of this astoundingly fine series it is also one of the best.