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.
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!)