Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked is an international bestseller and it is easy to see why. The book is a well-written hard-boiled/police procedural that follows Kurt Wallander as he attempts to solve a series of gruesome killings. In many ways, it seems like an episode of CSI with a perverse criminal who scalps his victims after killing them expertly with an axe. Lingering in the background of these crimes is the haunting suicide of a girl who burns herself to death right in front of Wallander at the beginning of the novel. Mankell keeps the narrative quite tight and moves the action along at a good pace. I quite enjoyed this aspect and it is pretty clear that Mankell is no first-time writer. One of the more interesting parts of Sidetracked is how the novel also reflects on contemporary Sweden and what kind of conditions make possible the existence of a serial killer like the one they are tracking. Not being from Sweden nor knowing anyone from there, I cannot verify whether the social commentary in the novel is accurate.
All that being said, there were two things that I was not a fan of. The first is a plot device whereby the serial killer narrates his crimes in various interludes throughout the narrative. For some reason, I wanted his identity to remain a mystery but quite early on it becomes obvious who it is. Mankell does use this to good effect in the latter portions of the novel when the killer begins to hunt Wallander himself. There were a number of tense scenes that I quite enjoyed, but on the whole I did not like knowing the killer’s identity so early.
The second issue I had with Sidetracked is more structural. The shocking nature of the killings and the implied sexual perversion that seems to link all the victims together. Is there something with Swedish writers and sexual perversion? I’m thinking of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo here. I wonder if the victim’s sexual crimes justifies on some level their violent death at the hands of the serial killer. This might be stretching it, but I don’t get the sense that Mankell wants us to pity his victims in any way. They are, at least in this novel, despicable men whose death makes the world a better place. But I worry about where the position this puts readers in: are we somehow made complicit in these character’s deaths? Do we want the killer to continue killing? These are all questions that are not answerable in the confines of this post (or maybe even in a dissertation). But I’m glad that Sidetracked has raised them for me.
I would recommend this book for fans of crime fiction or someone looking for a pleasurable if somewhat over the top summer read.
Mankell, Henning. Sidetracked. Trans. Steven T. Murray. New York: Vintage Crime, 2003. Print.