Wallander: Challenging Detective Novel Masculinity

by | October 11, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

When you think of male protagonists of detective novels, you might come up with the classics: Sherlock Holmes or maybe Hercule Poirot. Or you might think of the “hardboiled” types of 1930s and 40s detective fiction: the Sam Spades and Mike Hammers, or their contemporary cousins such as Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.

Reading Swedish author Henning Mankell’s hit series of novels about Detective Kurt Wallander, I pictured the character as a bit of a combination of Rebus (independent, headstrong, grumpy) and Holmes (rational, morally upright). I always pictured him as stereotypically masculine, because the examples of detectives I had growing up always were.

So it’s been a real treat to see Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Wallander, now in the second series of 3 episodes on Masterpiece Mystery (the last episode airs next Sunday, October 17). I expected Mankell’s suspenseful and creative plots to come to life well on the small screen. I even sort of expected the outstanding visuals. Phil Hogan at The Guardian says: “Even with bodies piling up – and we had a beautiful dead horse to admire last week – there’s always a moment when you find yourself thinking it might be a nice place for a holiday.”

What I didn’t expect was for Wallander to be a new type of detective who breaks with traditional ideals of masculinity.

The International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities contends that male investigators in detective fiction historically fell into one of three categories: the “analytical detectives” (Holmes, Poirot), who “embody a Victorian ideal of manliness” that sees violence as inherently masculine but requires that men control their aggressive emotions in order to be good citizens; the “hardboiled detectives” (Spade, Hammer), whose masculinity “emerged now as the radical antithesis of ‘femininity’, as a quality cleansed of any soft or feminine taint”; or the detectives in early psychological thrillers, who usually end up being destroyed unless they can completely quash the female-criminal element within them.

Rupert Graves in "The Man Who Smiled". Wallander Series II.

Branagh’s Wallander doesn’t fit any of these categories. He works under a woman boss and while he seeks out dangerous situations on his own, it doesn’t feel like he’s doing it to try to prove his manliness.

Above all, he’s emotional but not only in expressing anger and rage, like traditional male detectives. Wallander fears ending up like his father, who suffers from dementia, he longs to be closer to his daughter Linda, in Series I we see him shy and insecure on a first date (clips below), and in last night’s episode “The Man Who Smiled” he’s suffering immensely and considers resigning after shooting a neo-Nazi in self-defense.

At one point in “The Man Who Smiled” a suspect (Rupert Graves) implies that Wallander is tormented, wondering: “Does your pain make you a good man? Or a weak man?” Wallander rejects the premise of the question that it has anything to do with his masculinity and replies, “I took a life.”

If you haven’t watched any of the episodes yet, they’re definitely worth checking out. In addition to the intriguing plots and stunning visuals, it’s not every day you get a male detective whose feelings aren’t a weakness.


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