Firewall aka Brandvägg (1998)
by Henning Mankell

Firewall puts a modestly ingenious spin on the tired "techno-thriller" genre by making its protagonist totally apathetic about technology – he's a weary and grizzled police detective who can barely bring himself to even deal with checking his office email. This allows the book to take a completely different perspective on computer sabotage than you'd see in the typical American potboiler – in many respects it seems an intentional deflation of American crime-fiction, and to that I can only say, "Finally!"

Mankell's Karl Wallander is no Sherlock Holmes. There's nothing flashy, or even interesting about him. He's the kind of character you come to love like an old pair of shoes, simply because they become comfortable and familiar. He goes about his work with a practicality that is nothing short of total perfunctoriness. He doesn't even necessarily like his job, much less live for it. And he's not passionate enough to take care of his personal life, which exists in a limp limbo of forgotten chores and moderate, vague drinking. Yet his sheer contentiousness inevitably leads him to solve his cases, if for no other reason than because he doesn't want to be seen as a loser.

The first 90 pages of the book are so mind-numbingly boring that I wasn't entirely convinced this was not the work of a total hack. Yet something kept me hooked in; perhaps simply that I didn't want people to see me as a loser. I suspected that the elements of the story, which went as far as depicting police administrative procedures in excruciating detail and provding almost obsessive documentation of what time it was ("It was eight o'clock," etc), were laying groundwork for something much bigger, and shockingly unexpected. So I suffered through what turned out to be intentionally clichéd lines like: "They had finally found a connection. But not the kind he had been expecting."

Fortunately, I was correct in assuming it would all go somewhere. The lame routine of Wallander's daily life – work, home, work, run errand, home – sets a tone that lures you in to a false sense of complacency, only to ultimately spin you around once it becomes clear that the mystery at hand is absolutely gigantic. Though for a good long while this seems like one of those Simenon books I inexplicably enjoy, wherein, like, someone is found murdered and Maigret spends 150 pages poking around asking questions and having lunches, only to discover the identity of the murderer almost by accident, Firewall knows what it's up to. The meandering beginning is just one of many red herrings thrown at you to keep you off the scent.

What I loved about Firewall was that even when it did finally get rolling – and the plot is pretty kickin' – it stays true to Wallander's experience of things. Since he doesn't understand technology, he's blind to the full scope of what he's investigating, right up until it's moments away from being too late. This gives the plot a sort of inverted propulsion that occurs entirely within your mind. You know Wallander should check what's on the computer, but he is intimidated by the thought of even turning the computer on. You end up wanting to sit the guy down and give him an urgent Windows® tutorial – which one character actually attempts to do, only to immediately realize that Wallander just won't get it.

The book reminded me of the great Norwegian crime thriller Insomnia (remade in the US with Al Pacino, who figures into Firewall in a most curious way), with the same tone of vague regret, disappointment, and bleak Nordic unhappiness. The great thing is, these emotions actually cause the detectives to be constantly on the verge of quitting their jobs, so you get none of that testosteroney hogwash about loose-cannon cops or infallible white-hatted cowboys.

Mankell masterfully trumps expectations for every clichéd scenario he sets up. When a character jumps into a car to make his escape from shadowy villains who are closing in on him, it doesn't turn into a wild car chase – the guy drives for a few miles and just pulls over and hides until he thinks it's safe to go back. And by then, it is safe to go back, so he just tells the cops what went down, and no one comes back to murder the key witness right before he was about to reveal the crucial secret.

It's nicely done. Just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its first 90 pages.

Review by Timothy Hay