Wallander is leaving us, says Henning Mankell. I’ve written a (fairly frivolous) piece on detectives abandoning their readers in the Telegraph this morning (here). But while I was writing it, I was actually thinking about the instalment, and how attuned we are to it.
Dickens, of course, was the king of the serial. A chunk of Oliver Twist arrived monthly (and with later novels, sometimes weekly). The family sat down and someone read it aloud, or it got passed from family member to family member to friend. Then you waited another month, thinking about the characters and the plot, wondering what was going to happen next.
Magazines didn’t replicate that formula entirely, but the connection was still forged with characters like Sherlock Holmes, who showed up every month in the Strand Magazine, with a recurring cast of characters (OK, with Watson’s revolving cast of wives: either he married a lot, or Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to check what he had called his wife, and just made a stab at it; I know which theory I prefer), with a familiar household setup and plot formula. Readers loved it: it was comforting to know that somewhere life goes on in a routine fashion, even as you’re dealing with the unwelcome and unexpected.
And television, of course, follows exactly the same formula. The soaps and the telenovelas are the extreme version: a standard set of characters, in a complicated plot but with familiar emotions and recurring themes. Tune in any time, and you can bathe in the warm familiarity.
And detective fiction does the same too. The conversation I recorded in the Telegraph about one of the subsidiary characters in a Donna Leon / Brunetti novel was real. (You can usually tell which conversations I’ve made up, because I always sound so much smarter in them.) But this time I was truly discussing with a friend how long a fictional character had been dating another fictional character, and where she lived. (‘In the pages of a book, you fule,’ went unspoken.)
Descendants of the golden age of detective-fiction are known as ‘cosies’. I had always thought it was for their fairy-tale formula of restoring order to chaos, to the happily-ever-after ending where the ‘bad’ character is corralled, separated from all the other characters who are therefore, by definition, ‘good’, and harmony prevails. But writing this piece, I wonder if the ‘cosy’ element refers as much to the nursery love of the familiar. Just as we needed, as children, to hear Goodnight Moon over and over, in exactly the same setting, in exactly the same tone of voice, no page-skipping allowed, maybe as adults in a messy, uncertain life, we love the formula, the genre-ness of detective-fiction.
I wonder if Wallander ever thought of himself as a comfort-blanket?