The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallander Mystery by Henning Mankell – review

Henning Mankell's lament for Sweden's most celebrated detective

The flat, affectless sentences went on. Like rape out of season they stretched to the horizon in grey fields. Wallander found he was in another book. There was no reason for this. There could be no reason except money, but it would take 300 pages for him to work this out. It always did. Later, he would think about this often, but he could not reach any conclusions. Perhaps it was drink. Perhaps it was senility. Perhaps it was just the conventions of a Swedish crime novel. He wondered if any of this mattered.

Another page turned. His daughter rang. She disturbed him. This might be because she was the only human character in the entire book. She tells him he is a self-pitying bore but she loves him anyway. After she has gone he will spend some time looking out of the window and feeling regret while he remembers incidents from other books. Later, she has a baby, but to show she belongs in the book she will refuse to name it for three months. This is a joke that worked better in Doonesbury where the author was aware that people might find it funny.

An old girlfriend turns up. She is dying of cancer. Soon, she will kill herself, although it may have been an accident. Wallander is unhappy for some weeks, and then he decides he will always be unhappy. Life continues.

The earlier Wallander books may have been portentous and melodramatic but they were at least internally consistent. This one, billed as the final title in the series, gives no sign of an editor's hand. Characters and plotlines morph without either realism or magic. At one stage Wallander has always been a morning person; 50 pages later, he is someone who thinks best in the evenings as he always has. One important character or clue disappears entirely without any explanation or even any suggestion that an explanation is needed. But then neither clues nor characters play any role in the crime. There is neither cerebral detection nor conventional police work: the solution is reached by a process of inspissated introspection. Wallander sits around feeling sorry for himself, with a vague feeling that he doesn't understand what's happening.

Sometimes he drives to another town, which is never described. That is one of the more curious conventions of the Swedish detective story, which may account for some of its international success. They are written as if everyone knew what Mariefred is like, or Avesta. Hornsgatan is spoken of as if it were as culturally salient as Fifth Avenue. This is puzzling until you realise that Rivendell is never closely described in The Lord of the Rings, either. These are entirely generic placeholders: the names are just frames into which the reader inserts their own picture of somewhere else.

Back to the plot. Wallander sits and wonders why he does not understand anything many times until he has a glimpse of the obvious: this is a Swedish thriller. So the villain can't be a woman working for the KGB, can it?

Unreality in itself is not a drawback in a crime novel. To complain that few people are actually murdered in vicarages is missing the point of the classic English detective story. The relentless leftism of Swedish crime novels is reassuring for its audience, just as the snobbery with violence of Bulldog Drummond reassured the British in their day. Both said the world was still a comprehensible place.

But unreality must be consistent if it is to reassure. Wallander was once a policeman trying to do his job while the world fell to pieces around him. Now he does not even try. When at last Wallander witnesses a murder-suicide which would have cleared up the whole case, he tells no one and steals away, leaving the crime to be discovered and hopefully misinterpreted by someone else. There's no explanation for this plot twist. I think it is meant to show how profound and conflicted a character the hero is: not just cardboard, but cardboard twisted into origami. When I reached it I understood that I must quickly and without explanation drink a bottle of cheap wine and have unsatisfying sex with a stranger in a German motel. This is because I have feelings. Later, I will be disgusted with myself. That is another feeling. If you want more, you should be reading a different book.

Andrew Brown's Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared is published by Granta.


Andrew Brown

The GuardianTramp

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