Saturday, April 09, 2011

Henning Mankell, THE TROUBLED MAN: Exquisite End to the Kurt Wallander Series

US cover
Compassion: The term keeps coming up as I think about what Henning Mankell has done in his 2011 release in the Kurt Wallander detective series, set in Sweden. The book's title, THE TROUBLED MAN, refers to a vanished naval commander, Hakan von Enke, the wealthy and dignified father of the man that Wallander's daughter has chosen for her partner -- at least, for the father of her baby, and perhaps someday for her husband. A surprisingly deep and revelatory conversation with Wallander, with the naval commander revealing the most frustrating puzzle of his own Cold War past, is followed almost immediately by the reserved and elegant man's disappearance. There is no suggestion of violence -- but also no sign of continued life, for von Enke left behind everything, from wallet to passport to cell phone to photos of his family.

The investigation isn't properly Wallander's -- it's in the city, out of his jurisdiction -- but how can he not attempt to discover what has happened? His daughter's happiness is at risk. His new granddaughter's second grandfather is missing, and soon presumed dead. And there are suggestions that the espionage puzzles of the 1960s, 1970s, and most importantly 1980s have caught up with von Enke and forced him to pay the ultimate price.

While Wallander experiences a growing sense of understanding of and compassion for this naval commander who has dedicated his life to solving a mystery that involves at least Sweden and Russia, and perhaps the United States, Wallander himself is falling victim: to the depression, anger, and perhaps Alzheimer's disease that must have afflicted his own father, a painter who featured in some of the earlier volumes of this series but who passed away well before this one's opening. Wallander's incessant questioning and testing of himself -- what has he forgotten? is he displaced? -- becomes as tragic as von Enke's disappearance, and threatens his daughter's happiness and security from another direction. This daughter is Linda, who abruptly chose a police career herself, perhaps the only tangible proof that Wallander has to suggest his parenting of his daughter had positive sides to it. And he's desperate to hide his frailty from Linda, but the situation is worsening.
His father was an unsolved riddle as far as he was concerned. Was he himself just as much of a riddle to Linda? What would Wallander's granddaughter say about her grandfather? Would he be no more than a shadowy and silent old police officer who sat alone in his house, visited less and less often by fewer and fewer people? That's what I'm afraid of, Wallander thought. And I have every reason in the world to be afraid. I certainly haven't cherished and taken care of my friendships.
In the long, slow process of investigating the shadows of the missing man -- the "troubled man" who had almost revealed his quandary to Wallander, just barely pulling back -- the aging police office confronts the losses and griefs of his life: his divorce, his drinking, his deteriorating physical condition, the one deep love he had after the divorce, his shadowed mind. He too is a "troubled man." His pursuit of a solution to von Enke's disappearance (during his midsummer vacation, when he ought to be resting) is costing him what little peace of mind he has retained.

In an interview with crime author Declan Burke, Mankell described the finality of this volume as being linked closely to how revelatory the book is of Wallander himself. "When you finish reading the novel, that there’s really nothing more to be said about him, that he has nothing more to say about himself. So this is why it must be the last Wallander story.”

Although the closing of the series, the walling off of the character, has been compared to the end of A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, this sense of completion makes it as different as possible from the Holmes finale. The careful pacing of the book, rambling between external threats and internal fears, is a marvel of what's best in today's detective fiction: pairing the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of some form of salvation for the detective.

UK cover
But if your mind is truly going, if your memories are failing, even the ones -- especially the ones -- of the past few minutes, what kind of salvation can there be?

Do take time to read the Mankell/Burke interview; it's quietly insightful and may help many a reader accept the choice of this author. I can say, though, that from my point of view, little consolation was needed at the end of the volume: The long quiet stitching of a compassionate blanket of farewell throughout THE TROUBLED MAN provides for a ending that is as exquisite as the ten-book series itself.

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