This post contains spoilers. ..
And spoilers about spoilers. ..
In the first paragraph…
I’m serious. If you haven’t read the Wallander series; if you’re planning to read the Wallander series; if you haven’t read this, the tenth and final book in the Wallander series; or if you are half way through The Troubled Man, stop reading now.
The reason for the emphasis on spoilers?
Well, I was this far through The Troubled Man:
when I went to hear Jo Nesbo in conversation at the Ulster Hall in Belfast last year. I do so love my Nordi Noir. During a Q&A session at this event, an
unthinking idiot sorry, helpful man in the audience asked if Jo Nesbo knew how things were going to end for his detective Harry Hole and if he planned to kill him off the way Mankell had just done to Wallander. A groan echoed through the hall, probably led by me as loads of Mankell readers had the end of the series spoiled for them in one fell swoop. So, I stopped reading the book. It sat and sat for so long that I considered it abandoned. Then last week, I heard the news reports that Henning Mankell had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and something about that made me want to follow Kurt to the end. And what a swift end it is.
No shoot outs here, no dramatic falls or lingering death scenes. Just six short lines tell us that
‘Kurt Wallander slowly descended into a darkness that that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease. After that there is nothing more. The story of Kurt Wallander is finished, once and for all.’
Mankell has a reputation for being, well, curt, but that is one abrupt end to a series of books that lit the touch paper on Scandanavian crime and let Nesbo and Larsson burn bright across the publishing world.
So, what of the book itself?
On a winter day in 2008, Håkan von Enke, a retired high-ranking naval officer, vanishes during his daily walk in a forest near Stockholm. The investigation into his disappearance has nothing to do with Wallander — officially. But von Enke is his daughter’s future father-in-law. And, as usual, Wallander is soon interfering in a case he should probably leave well alone. What follows is a mixture of a Swedish naval history and a cold war spy thriller as Kurt tries to explain the disappearance of his future in-laws.
Is von Enke the Troubled Man of the title? Or is it Kurt? Our brusque, gloomy police inspector can be pretty downbeat at the best of times, but this novel follows him battling his own problems: loneliness, ballooning weight, diabetes, insomnia, the alcoholism of his former wife, the sudden death by cancer of a former lover and, most disturbingly, sudden and complete losses of memory which terrify him so much that he hasn’t the nerve to consult a doctor. Wallander becomes the symbol of the slow decay of Swedish society reflected in the deterioration of his own body, mental health and morale. His inner turmoil drives the procedural, there is a lot of looking back, taking stock. In one episode Kurt visits a churchyard where he carved his initials in a wall as a child,
‘He closed his eyes and thought he could hear his own childhood voice echoing inside his head, sounding like it did when it was cracking and he was troubled by everything the adult world stood for. Maybe this is where I should be buried when the time comes, he thought. Return to the beginning…’
The book as a whole feels like a farewell and the mental state of Wallander is it’s prime concern. Which is probably for the best because as crime fiction, it is not actually that satisfying. The pace of Mankell’s book are always slow, but this is funereal. The plot is dense, but many loose ends are left untied, characters motives left vague and the resolution is well, pretty unresolved. The holes in the plot echo the holes in Wallander’s memory and maybe this is intentional but it makes the book less than the sum of its parts. This is maybe why I abandoned it so easily in the first place, yet, as an ending to a remarkable series, it feels like a fitting way to lay the unforgettable Kurt Wallander to rest.
The news of Mankell’s illness also hung like a cloud over this book. I know he has written other fiction but his creation of an iconic character is most probably his legacy.
“I haven’t spend a lot of time thinking about what will be left of me,” Mankell said recently in an interview with The Guardian, “If you think of how many writers and artists you remember from 50 years back – it is so few. I think I have written a couple of novels that will survive, but no one knows, and all we can do is work and participate in the time in which we happen to live. I have a bridge named after me in northern Sweden, which is wonderful, but I won’t be around to worry about whether I am remembered.”
10 books, 3 different television adaptations and the towering figure in Scandinavian crime fiction? I don’t think Mankell has to worry about not being remembered…
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