Book review: ‘The Troubled Man’

Los Angeles Times

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Kurt Wallander?

Don’t worry, the peerless Swedish police detective, the pride of the force in rural Ystad, doesn’t get ruthlessly gunned down like Edward G. Robinson’s Rico Bandello in “Little Caesar.” It’s that author Henning Mankell has let it be known that “The Troubled Man,” his 10th mystery featuring the dour investigator, and one of his best, will probably be his last. Which is a terrible shame.

Not that fans of this exceptional series haven’t seen it coming. Except for “The Pyramid,” a series of connected short stories, and “Before the Frost,” in which the detective shares billing with his daughter, Linda, there hasn’t been a stand-alone Wallander novel since 2002’s “Firewall.”

On the other hand, as anyone who follows the bestseller lists knows, the timing for Wallander’s exit couldn’t be more ironic, coming as it does after Stieg Larsson’s trio of Lisbeth Salander novels have created a monstrous market for Swedish crime-fiction. Though it’s disconcerting to see paperbacks of Mankell’s much-superior novels being marketed with the sticker, “What to Read Next for Fans of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’” such is the way of the world.

Mankell, of course, won’t be giving up writing. He’s published more than half a dozen non-Wallander novels, many of them not mysteries at all, and these will surely continue. But the paradox here, as “The Troubled Man” proves beyond a doubt, is that the Wallander books are more successful as literature than the books in which the detective does not appear. It’s almost as if the strictures of the police procedural series, rather than inhibiting creativity, have liberated the writer to do his best work.

More than that, with his new Wallander novel Mankell ups his game and enters John le Carré territory. Not only does “The Troubled Man” widen the scope of the detective’s investigations into the world of international geopolitics and the relationship of Sweden to the U.S. and Russia, it is a work of genuine heft and substance, a melancholy, elegiac book that is thoughtful and perceptive about memory, regret and the unfathomability of human nature.

The Wallander novels get their strength from the notion of using crime novels to reflect on society and having a protagonist who ages and evolves from book to book. It’s an idea inspired, as Mankell frequently acknowledges, by the series of Martin Beck novels written by fellow Swedes Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Marvelously astute about behavior and motivation, Mankell has created in Wallander a shambling central character whose unconventional personality is at least as compelling as the crimes he investigates and has become another major factor in the series’ success. A fallible and out-of-shape loner who is prone to catching colds and drinking too much, not necessarily in that order, Wallander is often put-upon and overworked. He’s a tired, grumpy but very human perfectionist whose tongue can turn biting when people exasperate him, which is often.

Police work is the only constant in Wallander’s life, and it’s here that he’s a master. Though an investigator of formidable instinct and intuition, his real advantage is his painstaking doggedness, his willingness to sift and resift evidence until it speaks to him. It’s not so much a search for a key, Mankell explains, but rather a “hunting for the slightest sound of a distant tinkling from a bunch of keys.”

The Wallander we meet as “The Troubled Man” opens, in 2007, has made some changes in his life. After years of thinking about it, he has made a move to a house in the country and bought a dog that, opera fan that he is, he names Jussi after the great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. Wallander also learns to his unexpected delight that he’s going to be a grandfather. While daughter Linda is in no hurry to be married, she is pregnant and moving in with the father, Hans von Enke, a serious young man who makes his living in the precarious world of hedge funds.

In the course of getting acquainted with Hans, Wallander is invited to a 75th birthday party for Han’s father, Hakan von Enke, a former commander in the Swedish navy who specialized in both commanding and hunting down submarines. At the party the two men end up talking about a celebrated 1982 event involving a foreign submarine that had been trapped in Swedish territorial waters, only to somehow escape. Hakan had been involved in the situation and had over the years become increasingly obsessed by it. During a lull in the conversation, Wallander’s instincts tell him that the distinguished future father-in-law is scared.

So the detective is not as shocked as he otherwise would have been when Hakan von Enke disappears without a trace, “the nearest thing you can get to going up in smoke.” Though not an official member of the investigating team, Wallander’s family connection and natural inclinations draw him deeper and deeper into this increasingly murky incident.

More even than in the earlier novels, “The Troubled Man” involves us in Wallander’s personal concerns, which are considerable. At 60, he feels the shadow of his own mortality closing in on him: “creeping up and sticking its claws in the back of my neck.” Making this especially terrifying are the memory lapses the detective starts to experience, when “chunks of time just disappear. Like ice melting away.” For a man like Wallander, that is the biggest nightmare of all.

In addition to Linda, Wallander’s investigations and his life bring him into contact with key people from his past, including his ex-wife, Mona, and Baiba Liepa, the Latvian widow who was the great love of his life. We can feel Mankell consciously saying goodbye to these people and that he will regret not writing about them as much as we will miss reading about them. Which is more, really, than words can say.