The Book Catapult

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (review)

I think I first discovered Swedish mystery novelist Henning Mankell in 2004 – Warwick’s was carrying one or two of his Kurt Wallander books, but no one on staff had ever read any and customers weren’t really buying. Being a young, fresh-faced 29-year-old, I was suckered in by the sweet-looking Vintage Crime packaging of The White Lioness (the cover art is an X-ray of a handgun) and discovered that a pretty fantastic series of crime novels lived inside. Now, I don’t want to take all the credit, but there have been six Wallander films made for PBS and Warwick’s has sold (to date) a combined 1,318 copies of the books in the series (not counting Mankell’s array of stand-alone novels.) Not to mention the blossoming of Scandinavian crime fiction in the US market – Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Karin Fossum, I’m talkin’ to you. Now, seven years down the road, I think I’ve outgrown Wallander a little bit – and after reading the final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, I think Mankell has too.

For the uninitiated, Kurt Wallander is a morose genius of a detective from Ystad in southern Sweden. He is brilliant in his policework, but constantly overwhelmed by his own personal shortcomings – whether in his relationship with his daughter, his ex-wife, his father, or his girlfriend, nothing ever seems right to him and he is prone to angry, self-righteous outbursts that ostracize those around him. In all the previous eight books (and one short story collection) Wallander’s crimesolving abilities have outweighed his faults, allowing the reader to accept that his morose personality is a package deal with the brilliant detective. Most of the time, his ennui is almost humorous to witness and has become one of the character’s most endearing qualities. Not so here. His self-loathing and general, everyday misery – now coupled with encroaching memory loss and looming hereditary dementia – creates an atmosphere of such painful, pitiful wallowing that I wanted to toss the book across the room when I finished.

He checked his watch. A quarter to two. He had been asleep for nearly four hours. His sweaty shirt was making his shiver. He went back inside and lay down in bed. But he couldn’t get to sleep. “Kurt Wallander is lying in his bed, thinking of death,” he said aloud to himself. It was true. He really was thinking of death.

Jesus. Really?

Unfortunately, the case that Wallander works in The Troubled Man, isn’t compelling enough to carry the book and I ended up mired down in the self-pitying inner thoughts of Kurt, rather than remaining interested in the criminal elements. (That narrative, by the way, consists of the parents-in-law of Wallander’s daughter going missing on two separate occasions. Kurt figures it out, eventually, but I didn’t find any of it all that interesting.) Sadly, to me it read as if Mankell was trying to re-capitalize on the Swedish mystery-thing by forcing one final Wallander book out of his book hole. (Of course, this may not be true, but Henning can feel free to write about it on his own blog.) I think we would all have been better served had he just decided to collect the royalties he’s already getting and let the series lie.

*One other thing that bothered me (and this commentary would be for readers of the rest of the series) – at the end of the previous book – Firewall, published by Vintage in ’03 – some of Wallander’s personal relationships were left in a sort of limbo status, especially his volatile partnership with fellow detective, Martinsson. At the very end of the book – which, remember, was the final Wallander novel up until now – Martinsson calls out Kurt for being out of touch and not listening to others on the police force, kind of leaving their friendship hanging. There is no trace of this conflict in The Troubled Man – which pisses me off.

But hey, that’s just me.

Janet Maslin’s take in the New York Times. (Non-committal take, that is.)
Anna Paterson, from The Independent
Andrew Brown, The Guardian (a fascinating, insane rant)
A starred editor’s review at Kirkus (“…Wallander will grip the reader hard.” Hee-hee!)

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3 comments on “The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (review)

  1. Mel
    March 31, 2011

    I am disappointed that the last book seems such a fizzer. I haven't read it yet, but have mostly enjoyed the others in the series.

    I was also recently given the Kenneth Branagh, BBC Wallander DVD (Sidetracked, Firewall and One Step Behind). Have you seen these? They are beautifully shot on location in Ystad and surrounds.

    My favourite by Mankell is not a Wallander book, but The Return of the Dancing Master. It features another tormented Swedish detective (this one is battling a cancer diagnosis, I think) but the actual murder mystery is as tense and creepy as one could hope for. Have you read this? I have also read some novels by Mankell that have just left me scratching my head. Kennedy's Brain is a very odd story that leaves many loose ends.

  2. Seth Marko
    April 7, 2011

    Hey Mel – I have seen most of the Branagh films, which I think perfectly capture the books. (I never would've thought he'd be the perfect Wallander, but, man…)

    I also liked Dancing Master, but haven't really been crazy about the rest of his “stand-alone” novels. I haven't even attempted any since Depths, which was kinda jibberish.

    I'd say that if you've read all the other Wallander books, you should really read the new one, if only to put a cap on the series & see how things tie up. Even if it's disappointing. I'd say get it from the library. 🙂

  3. Cormac Brown
    June 18, 2011

    I'm on Page 249 of “Troubled,” and this is my first Wallander book, ever. The Missus gave it to me for my birthday, and…well, this one does not read as well prose-wise, as Larson or Nesbo does. Mankell also gives only a cursory introduction to most of his characters, so I am completely lost as a Wallander-novice.

    Still, I really want to know what happened to Hakan, so I plod onward through the post-Cold War Swedish mire.

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2011 by in Henning Mankell, review.
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