Wallander and Montalbano – TV series or books? In the interests of answering this vital question I abandoned my usual "no live TV" rule of life - well, not quite, I did record the programmes but watched them within a week or two of their live airings, which for me is highly unusual. The answer? Books, without a doubt. But the TV episodes, although not a patch on the books, are in both cases highly watchable, and I recommend them.
Kurt Wallander, as everyone must know by now, is Henning Mankell's morose detective, based in Ystad in southern Sweden. For English-language readers, Mankell acts as a bridge between the classic 10-book Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (written in the 1960s and 70s), and the current cornucopia of Swedish authors now translated, favourites of mine being Lisa Marklund, Ake Edwardson, Kjell Eriksson, Asa Larsson, Stieg Larsson (no relation), Camilla Lackberg, Mari Jungstedt, Helene Tursten, Johan Theorin and others. (And that list is just a few of the Swedes: from the Scandinavian region there are also Norwegian, Icelandic, Finnish and Danish authors who write similar excellent novels.) Wallander is a pretty accurate type-example of the Swedish police detective as featured in many of these books – thoughtful, sad, unglamourous, middle-aged, not big on media communication skills – though inspiring loyalty and respect from colleagues by being good at the job. Urban sophistication and other trappings of materialism are universally mocked by these authors. The thriller element is not usually in evidence much if at all, the main joys of most of these books being the characterisation and observation they contain.
The TV version of the Wallander novels focuses almost entirely on two elements: Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of the main character; and the photography. Both are compelling, and good reasons to watch the programmes. Less impressive are the plots, necessarily trimmed down to the bare bones, meaning that the identity of perpetrators is obvious and the storylines somewhat clunky; and the atmosphere, for example the police station and interactions between the colleagues (and reception desk!) are ruined, instead we are given cliches, modern decor and "generic planet-TV detective team". Subtleties are missing, for example the arc of the relationship between Wallander and his daughter Linda is reduced to a sentimental (though touching) plot-enabling device from the start. If you stop at the TV series and don't read the books, you are missing a lot: even though the denouements in some of the books are daft, the rich portraits of a society, its values and people, make this flaw seem irrelevant.
The masterly series of Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, set in Sicily, is well-captured in the Italian TV films of Excursion to Tindari and one with a title about croquettes (seemingly written for TV by the author). These films give a good sense of the books, particularly the quick-fire sensation that everything is about to collapse into chaos throughout, and Montalbano's love of the countryside and its food. Montalbano is a much faster wit than Wallander, operating with furious energy and with emotions constantly erupting, not least due to the endemic political and mafia-related corruption he lives with daily, and the frustations engendered by some of his colleagues (a painstakingly built team of hilariously disparate types). The novels are superbly and sensitively translated by the poet Stephen Saterelli; inevitably the wonderful subtleties of the language, particularly the puns and jokes involving Caterella, are lost in the films' subtitling. One's Italian would have to be extremely good to follow the extreme speed of the dialogue. Similar to Mankell, Camilleri's mystery plots not only sometimes leave plenty to be desired, but also sometimes seem irrelevant. Yet despite this, the books are miniature masterpieces, providing an absorbing tribute to this beautiful if ruined country and the ways of life there, leaving the reader at the end of each one with a yearning sense of loss.
Other related posts on the topic are at Crime Scraps, Lizzy's Literary Life, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Material Witness, It's a Crime! (or a mystery), Euro Crime, Crime Scraps (again), The Independent newspaper in a weak article that misses opportunities, Euro Crime (again) , Euro Crime (yet again!), and The Guardian.