Henning Mankell describes his goal in the best-selling Wallander novels as an examination of the social antagonisms in his native Sweden, particularly with regard to race and immigration, within the commercial genre of the police procedural. This essay complicates Mankell's claims, which have been widely accepted by critics. Rather, the author situates Mankell's Wallander series in the literary tradition named by Ernest Mandel as the “disintegrative” thriller, which Mandel sees emerging in response to late capitalism's restructuring of electoral politics and in the context of Sweden's recent neoliberal turn. Social and political conditions in Sweden are ripe for the production of the cultural affect Peter Sloterdijk diagnoses as “cynical reason” or “modern cynicism” in his influential work, Critique of Cynical Reason. For Sloterdijk, the conflicted postmodern cynic affirms the post-Enlightenment project of ideological critique, the unmasking of concealed truth, although he has lost faith in the efficacy of this project. Sloterdijk's account provides a fascinating analogue to European detective figures noted for their “authenticity” or “realism,” and the Wallander series presents a provocative fable of disillusionment: a melancholic antihero defending the embattled welfare state, while uncovering the corruption of that same state, who gradually descends into the highly symbolic oblivion of Alzheimer's disease. This analysis of the Wallander character as postmodern cynic explores the ironies of a detective who no longer retains firm convictions of the likelihood of justice or the integrity of the individual mind. Ideally, this consideration of Mankell's best-selling series helps to explain its enormous appeal—how it speaks to its multiple audiences—and what constitutes realism in crime fiction today.

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