THE PYRAMID – Henning Mankell

THE PYRAMID is a collection of 5 short mysteries by which Henning Mankell introduces us to Kurt Wallender when he is a 21 year-old patrolman investigating the first homicide of his career. In a foreward, Mankell explains that he has received many inquires over the years about what happened to Wallender in the years before he receives the phone call the begins the first book in the series, FACELESS KILLERS. Mankell acknowledges that there have been inconsistencies in Wallender’s story as it stretches across the eight book series and he tries to resolve them in these stories.
FACELESS KILLERS begins on January 8, 1990 when Wallender is almost 43 years old. “Wallender’s First Case” takes place when Wallender is a 21 year-old patrolman in Malmo, just beginning his relationship with Mona, the woman he will marry. Artur Halen is a very private man who lives across the hall from Wallender. One night Wallender hears what sounds like a gunshot and, when he investigates, he finds Halen’s door ajar and his body on the floor. The death is ruled a suicide but Wallender isn’t convinced and he decides to investigate on his own time, acting against the rules of the police department.
In the second story, “The Man with the Mask”, it is Christmas Eve 1975 and Wallender is in a hurry to get home to Mona and his 5 year-old daughter, Linda. Just as he is leaving his office, his supervisor, Hemberg, asks him to make a stop at a grocery store that is on his way home. The owner, an elderly woman, has called reporting the presence of a man who seems just to be waiting outside her store. Wallender agrees to make the stop and a tragedy unfolds as he confronts a man overtaken by circumstances.
Mankell jumps forward to April, 1987 for “The Man on the Beach”. Wallender is now a chief inspector in Ystad, he is nearly middle-aged and his marriage is failing. Hansson, a colleague, asks Wallender to meet him at the local hospital so that he can hear a very strange story from Stenberg, a taxi driver. The driver describes collecting a fare in a nearby town for a trip to Ystad. Stenberg believed the man had fallen asleep in the backseat but when they arrive in Ystad, the man is dead. Wallender and his team learn that the man’s name was Alexandersson, that he owned a small business, lived in Stockholm, was divorced, and was the father of one child, a son who had died 7 years previously. Alexandersson had been staying in Ystad for the past week and each day a taxi took him to Svarte, dropped him off at the edge of the village early in the morning and then a taxi returned him to Ystad in the late afternoon. While in Svarte, Alexandersson walked on the beach. The team is unsure what it is they need to do about this case until they learn that there was poison in Alexandersson’s system. Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? As the story unfolds, Wallender finds himself caught in a story of obsession and love.
“The Death of the Photographer” takes place in April, 1988. Wallender and Mona are separated and he is trying to re-establish a relationship with his daughter, Linda. Early one morning in the middle of April, the body of Simon Lamberg is found in his photography studio. Lamberg was as close to an official photographer for the city of Ystad as anyone could be; he had taken Wallender’s wedding photos when he and Mona had married in 1970. The early investigation reveals only one odd thing in what was a very regular life – Lamberg took newspaper photos of prominent leaders in the government and community, including Wallender’s, and used the tools of his trade to turn the faces into grotesques, pictures which he saved in albums. That hobby seemed harmless and there didn’t seem to be anything else to warrant his violent death. As the investigation procedes, the police learn that Lamberg had a daughter who had been born with severe mental and physical handicaps. Until she was 4 she had been cared for at home but then it was necessary to have her placed in a hospital. Lamberg never visited her; her only visitors were her mother and a woman whose identity was unknown. Wallender refuses to believe that a man whose life was so normal, so regular could be the victim of a brutal attack such as the one that killed him. He is not surprised when, as he ends the case, he discovers that the motive was jealousy and revenge from a very unexpected quarter.
The final story in the book is also titled “The Pyramid” and it is in this story that Mankell examines Wallender’s relationship with his father, the eccentric painter of landscapes, with and without a grouse. On the 11th of December, 1989, a small plane drops from the sky and crashes in a forest far from any runway. The two men on board are killed, leaving nothing to identify them. It is quickly determined that this plane, not appearing on radar as it flew into Swedish air space, was carrying a load of drugs. Wallender is beginning this investigation when the sewing shop and home of two sisters catches fire, killing them. It is quickly ruled arson but why would anyone have anything against two seemingly pleasant old ladies? As Wallender tries to make sense of both cases, he gets hit with a third problem. His father has gone to Egypt to fulfill a dream to see the pyramids. Wallender is surprised by his father’s decision but not nearly as surprised as when he receives a telephone call from the police in Cairo reporting that his father has been jailed for trying to climb the ancient monuments. Wallender didn’t realize his father’s dream was actually to stand on top of a pyramid and the old man is not pleased that his son comes to rescue him.
Of the 5 stories, I enjoyed the last the most as Mankell resolves the pyramid. All of the stories are equally well-written and Mankell does a superb job creating Wallender’s back story. In the foreward, Mankell writes that the Wallender novels have served as a means to examine the relationship between the Swedish welfare state and democracy. While others may have grasped this subtext I did not. I have simply enjoyed some of the best written, most engaging mystery novels available today. The date of the foreward is January, 1999. I wonder what Wallender would make of 21st century Sweden.
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4 Responses to THE PYRAMID – Henning Mankell

  1. kathy d. says:

    The PBS Wallender series–wonder when they take place, if it’s the chronological age of the books from which they came.
    I can’t get into the Wallender books, although I liked “The Man from Beijing,” and I like interviews and essays written by Mankell. I must try harder.
    I want to read more of his stand-alones.

    • Beth says:

      In the PBS series, Wallender’s cell phone is heard frequently so the series has moved the time forward to allow for the new technology. I know when I read older mysteries, I have to remind myself of the copywrite date when I wonder why making a phone call is so complex. Mankell’s stories work well in the twenty-first century.

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