Good Letters

Humanized_DetectiveThe Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell died October 5, 2015. He was sixty-seven years old. Mankell was diagnosed with cancer a year ago during a trip to the orthopedic surgeon. Mankell thought he had a slipped disk. Turned out he had tumors in his neck and lung. The cancer had spread.

Henning Mankell wrote plays, children’s books, and short stories. But he will always be known for crime fiction and for his detective Kurt Wallander. The Wallander books became a huge sensation, selling millions of copies and spawning movies and several television series.

Kurt Wallander is a great character. He is a great character because he comes off as a real person struggling with mundane aspects of everyday life. He is a melancholy complainer who gets many things wrong even as he gets a few things right.

The trick of great crime fiction is to combine this sense of ordinary reality with the extraordinary incidents of murder and crime investigations that drive the plots of all crime novels. In that sense, good crime novels always employ sleight of hand.

The first twentieth century writer to use this conceit was probably Dashiell Hammett. But Hammett wasn’t fully conscious of what he was doing. Hammett simply had the feel for writing crime fiction with a hard-edged realism.

Raymond Chandler took crime writing to the next level. That’s because he consciously understood the aforementioned sleight of hand. Chandler realized excellent crime writing must introduce the quotidian by means of titillation.

Chandler wrote a now-famous essay in 1950 called “The Simple Art of Murder.” In that essay, he summed up, simply and in typically unforgiving prose, what is wrong with non-realist crime writing. Chandler was complaining mostly about the British, Sherlock Holmes style of crime writing, which featured intricate plots to murder fancy people in the drawing room. Those plots, wrote Chandler, “are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.”

Chandler was interested, by contrast, in murders that happen in the real world. Those murders are not pretty or clever or cute. Writers like Agatha Christie aren’t able to write about real crime, Chandler thought, for the simple reason that, to do so, “they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.”

Chandler, it goes without saying, didn’t think that most crime writers knew a damn thing about “the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.”

But Raymond Chandler felt that he did know a thing or two about the flavor of life. He was convinced Dashiell Hammett did too. Had Chandler lived to read Henning Mankell, he would surely have recognized a kindred spirit.

There is thus a line of development in realist crime fiction that runs directly from Hammett to Mankell. But there is a kink in that line.

Philip Marlowe is the protagonist of most of Chandler’s crime fiction. Chandler wanted Marlowe to be a special sort of man. “[D]own these mean streets,” Chandler wrote, “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

Chandler added, “He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.”

It is right there, I think, in those three sentences that Chandler reveals his own limitations as a writer of “lived life.” The problem with Philip Marlowe as a detective is not that he is all-too-human but that he isn’t human enough. He isn’t weak enough. Too often, Marlowe seems to be without fear altogether. Marlowe is too tough, too impervious to doubt.

Enter Kurt Wallander. Wallander is Philip Marlowe with all the human weakness that Chandler left out of Marlowe. Wallander accepts insolence all the time. He is lonely but doesn’t want to be. Even if Wallander does manage to extract revenge, it is never “dispassionate.”

The essential difference between Marlowe and Wallander can be grasped even in the way that they are physically described. Here is Marlowe from the beginning of The Big Sleep:

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.

There is some irony, of course, in the description, but contrast it with this description of Wallander from Firewall.

Wallander drove slowly along the road. He had been surprised when he put on his suit that morning and found that the pants fit. He must have lost weight. Ever since being diagnosed with diabetes the previous year he had been forced to modify his eating habits, start exercising, and lose weight.

You can’t imagine Philip Marlowe having diabetes, or exercising.

Near the end of Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” is an intriguing sentence. “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” Chandler thought Marlowe had to have an essential quality of toughness in order to carry out that redemption.

But it turns out that Wallander has this “quality of redemption” every bit as much as Marlowe. More so, even. Only, Wallander’s “quality of redemption” is fully as sordid and conditional as the world within which he lives and moves.

The realist crime novel from Hammett to Mankell has seen the development toward a central hero who is both fully redemptive and fully human. In other words, the crime novel has been working out, in its first hundred years, roughly the same problem early Christianity struggled to work out in its first hundred years. With the passing of Henning Mankell comes a reminder: You never know just where the Gospel will turn up.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Morgan Meis

Morgan Meis is the critic-at-large for The Smart Set ( He has a PhD in Philosophy and has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at

Photo credit: snowshot, Creative Commons.

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