Killing off a Swedish detective series
THE TROUBLED MAN, by Henning Mankell. Knopf, 367 pp., $26.95.
Kurt Wallander is the Sherlock Holmes of our day. If Holmes' gaslit streets and treacherous moors defined the Victorian mystery, then Wallander's desolate Sweden captures the atmospherics of today's brooding Nordic crime novels better than anyone. (Sorry, Stieg Larrsson fans.)
Unfortunately, there's another striking similarity. Henning Mankell, it seems, has come to dislike Wallander as much as Arthur Conan Doyle came to hate Holmes, which he makes clear in his last, thoroughly unsatisfying Wallander novel, "The Troubled Man." (There's still a novella unreleased in English, "The Grave.") While I'm not at liberty to say whether Wallander winds up in the Swedish equivalent of the Reichenbach Falls, it's clear that Mankell has grown tired of his great detective.
Again like Doyle, Mankell seems to want to leave Wallander behind so he can pursue more serious themes in his fiction -- like blaming the United States for everything from AIDS in South Africa to infiltration of Swedish politics. That, in itself, isn't the problem. The issue is that Mankell's non-Wallander novels, such as "Kennedy's Brain" and "The Man from Beijing," just aren't very good. They're bloated, turgid and laughably bleak.
Wallander imposes discipline on Mankell. The detective's melancholy riffs on Swedish society, his dedication to doing his part to maintain a semblance of morality, the intertwining of his personal life and police procedurals are what have made Wallander so fascinating.
Until now. Mankell was a master of letting his protagonist age as the series progressed, but now, at 60, Wallander has internalized all his worries about Sweden as he ponders the abyss and obsesses about his failing memory. His daughter, Linda, who established such a sparkling relationship with him in "Before the Frost," merely nags her father as he reminisces about family life -- his disagreeable late father, his childhood dog's getting hit by a truck, his alcoholic ex-wife and his cancer-ridden ex-lover.
Linda, meanwhile, has taken up with a dullard financier whose parents have gone missing. Are they Russian spies? Are they alive? This is the central mystery of the novel, hardly as compelling as the shocking murders Wallander has been faced with in the past.
Not that it's a bad story. Mankell's ability to unspool a mystery and Wallander's ability to solve it are still at the head of the class. Just what is going on with these disappeared people? One seems to be a spy, but the financier son, who's obsessed by the international financial collapse, is awfully suspicious. Could he be a Scandinavian Bernie Madoff, or are the Swedish banks up to no good?
Mankell does a good enough job keeping us guessing and the resolution of the mystery is nicely turned. But it doesn't atone for the disappointing way he resolves Wallander's life story. Again, no details, but Mankell's cynicism borders on the misanthropic. Wallander's and Mankell's fans deserved much better.