THE TROUBLED MAN
By Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson
Knopf, $26.95, 384 pages
Kurt Wallander is perhaps the gloomiest of law officers plodding through crime fiction, and Henning Mankell apparently has decided to ring down the curtain on the implacable creature he has created without allowing him a glimmer of good humor.
In the course of solving many cases, Wallander rarely cracks a smile, and the idea of his laughing is ludicrous. For him life is grim, life is earnest, and consigning him to a death brought on by a debilitating disease is probably the unkindest cut of all.
This would appear to be Wallander’s last case, a convoluted, complicated maze of a plot in which he grows increasingly miserable and is rescued only by the efforts of Linda, his daughter, who is as devoted to her father as she is exasperated by him. When she isn’t worrying about him, she is trying to ease the sad life of her divorced mother, who is spending her last days in a haze of alcoholism.
Unfortunately for Linda, her father is plunged into a maelstrom with the mysterious disappearance of both her father-in-law and her mother-in-law. Inch by inch, Wallander tracks the case for what at times seems like an interminable 384 pages. There is the usual sardonic twist at the end, and the truth can never be told, Wallander realizes, because it would hurt too many people he cares about, including Linda and her lover. And while Wallander is contemplating retirement, he isn’t ready for it, or for the sudden moments of mental emptiness that afflict his once keenly analytical mind.
The book gives an impression of unbearable weariness, as though Mr. Mankell has grown tired of Kurt Wallander, the detective who even in his heyday as an investigator always seemed to be coping with an inner darkness. Wallander is barely 60 years old when he attempts to rouse himself from what he recognizes as a sagging of his thoughts and a virtual collapse of his ambitions. He moves out of the apartment where even the furniture depresses him, buys a new house in the country and gets a dog.
The fierceness and intricacy of the plotting in early Wallander novels countermanded the personal frailties of the man. Yet even in those days, there was a sense of his seeking to overcome a sense of failure that had its roots in the collapse of a long marriage and his inability to connect with his father or Baiba, the woman who seemed at one point the love of his life. He is distraught over Baiba’s unexpected death and what he perceives as his failure to make the most of their relationship.
Yet as he takes his dog for a walk, Wallander comes to the conclusion that “he was who he was a man good at his work, even astute. All his life he had tried to be part of the forces of good in the world and what else could a person do but his best?”
However, even the acquisition of Jussi the dog turns out to demonstrate how much his grasp on his world has weakened. He is fond of the animal, yet he constantly leaves it with a neighbor so that he can try to pick up the pieces of his career. He finds more comfort in gazing at the peacefully sleeping form of his new granddaughter than in playing with his rambunctious pet.
Ultimately, it is his daughter Linda who becomes his mainstay. He develops fondness for his baby granddaughter and Hans von Enke, the man with whom Linda lives. Ironically and characteristically, it is the disappearance of von Enke’s father and his wife, Louise, that launches Wallander’s last case, which proves to be one of the most challenging of all. As he moves into their empty apartment to search for clues to where they have gone and why, it is Wallander at his patient, investigative best.
His glacial pace is in keeping with the detective’s increasing struggles with his health and his head. As the mystery deepens, Wallander finds himself groping in a new darkness, and it is not until the closing days that his keen investigative talents reassert themselves in the kind of denouement that once was a mark of the kind of detective he was. The pages take on a familiar life as new characters emerge - such as the child whom the von Enkes refuse to acknowledge, and the mystery is embellished with the subtlety of a powerful espionage novel.
Yet it is as though the book ends with a sigh. In a poignant glimpse of what lies ahead, Mr. Mankell writes, “It is as if everything had fallen silent. As if all colors had faded away and all he was left with was black and white.
“The shadow grew more intense. And Kurt Wallander slowly descended into a darkness that some years later transported him into an empty universe”
Yet there is also a sense that at last Wallander found a measure of the peace he sought in a demanding and difficult career. He was who he was, and that meant a great deal.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.