At An End
Henning Mankell, the Swedish mystery writer, appears to have brought his dark, gifted and melancholic hero, Kurt Wallender, to a tired end. One wonders if the burden of success – and the Wallender series has been very successful – increased the desperation with which the detective in the Ystad police force approaches the solution of his last case. Mankell has, over the course of ten Wallender novels, established himself as far more than a writer of police procedurals. (His web site details his other books, his work in the theater and his social activism in Mozambique and South Africa.) His dedication and creativity appear inexhaustible, just as Wallender heads, exhausted, to something like oblivion. How does a writer continue to sustain such a success as Wallender in terms of the expectation of readers?
My reading life will suffer a real loss now that there will be no more of Kurt. The complexity of his character, developed over so many books, his unsparingly revealed weaknesses, and strengths, and the dense family web of relationships in which Wallender operates push the genre into serious fiction. Renewing his acquaintance (Almost ten years separate this Wallender title from its predecessor.) brought home just what good company Mankell provides.
The plot of The Troubled Man centers on a missing persons inquiry; Haken von Enke, who is to be the father-in-law of Wallender’s daughter, disappears. Haken has had a long, apparently distinguished naval career, and just before his disappearance confesses to Kurt, in most ambiguous terms, a fear for his life just as he is about to conclude an investigation into espionage that had occurred some twenty or more years before. The disappearance leads to the suspicious death of Haken’s wife, lengthy interviews with Haken’s former naval associates, a trip to Berlin and an interview with a former CIA operative. All this results in a deviously complex story of spying and counter-spying, one that ends in surprising – and bloody – revelations. As is every “who-done-it,” the energy of the plot comes from the procedural, the clues sorted, the interrogations made, the puzzle pieces to be fitted, but this novel is as much a meditation on mortality and life’s significance as it is about deceit and betrayal.
Wallender is troubled: he suffers from lapses of memory, from acute diabetes that sends him into shock. The great love of his life, Baiba, makes a last, surprise visit to him, announcing her own imminent death, The single assurance in these grim days appears in his granddaughter and his increasingly strong relationship with his daughter Linda. But here too, his former wife, Mona, intrudes as she collapses more and more under the weight of her addiction to alcohol. Without giving the climactic scenes away, I can say that the story’s conclusion is a decision about a life’s achievement, the accounting for what one has done and failed to do, in the time allotted. Again, the burden of discovery and concealment falls on Wallender, who struggles, despite his successes, with the larger failure of his bodily frame.
There is a grimness in the final few pages; the valediction is an assertion of privacy, almost a warning to the reader that any more novels about Wallender would constitute a breach in confidentiality. Leave him alone, Mankell says. He refuses to offer any more to a demanding public, and he makes an assertion about the integrity of his own creation. There is in this something entirely understandable and something that points to other burdens, particularly the art of writing fiction. It appears to Mankell as a god-like power to create life, sustain it, and then, at will, end it. These final paragraphs stamp the Wallender series and lift it to a consideration of the limits of realism and the nature of artistic creation. We are forced to ask in the largest sense, “Who done it?”