Friday, February 1, 2013

Kirk Wallander’s Last Hurrah: Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man

"The genre is often misunderstood. It is not just about finding out whodunit, it is about understanding the world through the lens of crime and justice."

- Henning Mankell as reported by Alison Gzowski in The Globe and Mail, March 28, 2011.

Kurt Wallander is a forty-year-old police detective whose personal life is unravelling: his marriage is over; he is estranged from his daughter, Linda, and his visits to his curmudgeonly father, who has never forgiven him for joining the police force, are fraught with tension. Wallander drinks too much, a condition that puts his professional life in jeopardy. His mentor on the police force is dying. Moreover, he is convinced that Sweden is changing for the worse. It is becoming more violent: a group of youths set fire to a refugee camp, a Somali refugee is murdered and an elderly couple is tortured to death. Before the woman dies, she utters one word “foreigner.” Wallander believes that the official asylum policy is a mess as opportunists are conflated with bona fide refugees; the absence of any distinction makes it easier for nationalists and racists to tar all foreigners.

The foregoing is the gist of Faceless Killers, the first of ten Wallander novels (excluding those in which Wallander is a minor character) culminating in The Troubled Man (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) that has deservedly earned vast international critical acclaim and commercial sales. Besides his lucid writing, two reasons may explain why Henning Mankell, particularly his Wallander novels, is the most widely known Swedish writer since August Strindberg. As suggested above, Mankell believes that a once homogeneous society of civic minded citizens, who supported its once humanitarian ideals and progressive social policies, proud of being the moral conscience on the international stage, was disappearing before an increasingly multicultural society in which violent crime had connections with growing globalization and the seismic changes resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

In The White Lioness, the murder of a Swedish woman is linked with killers who were former KGB officers, and South African apartheid supporters are using Wallander’s homeland as a base to prepare for an assassination of Nelson Mandela to incite a civil war in South Africa. Sweden is chosen because as the fascist Boer explains, it “is a neutral insignificant country...[where] the border controls are pretty casual.” (Some of the action occurs in South Africa which Mankell knows well since he divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique where he heads the national theatre.) In The Man Who Smiled, he investigates a powerful businessman, regarded as a pillar of the community, who may be involved in the transplant of body organs from individuals specifically killed for that purpose. No wonder in One Step Behind, Wallander muses: “Irrational violence was almost an accepted part of daily life these days….Bosnia had always seemed so far away, he thought. But maybe it was closer than they realized.” Mankell is superb in the manner with which he demythologizes Sweden, the benign liberal country.

The second reason for the popularity of the Wallander novels is the namesake character. Overworked, an exhausted insomniac who does not take care of his body, and suffers frequently from near-crippling depression – he almost died after being stabbed at the beginning of his career and he encounters the darkness within the human heart regularly in his work – Wallander is a very good detective. True, he makes mistakes, often undertaking a dangerous action on his own without consulting his colleagues or pursuing an action that leads to a cul-de-sac. He has, however, major strengths: his dogged pursuit of justice at almost any cost that contributes to his frayed personal relations, his intuition – assisted by the inner ghostly voice of his former deceased mentor – a gift that brings greater clarity to difficult cases, and most importantly, has saved his life more than once, and a stoicism that enables him to persevere. Paradoxically, his most serious challenges stem from his humanity. After killing a man in self-defence, Wallander’s soul is a “devastated bomb site.” Yet after wallowing in an alcoholic stupor, he realizes that he needed to return to work so that his life could find a “glimmer of meaning” in “helping people to lead as secure an existence as possible, removing the worst criminals from the streets. To give up on that…would also mean undermining deep inside him, the feeling of being a part of something greater than himself, something that made his life worth living” (The Man Who Smiled). Despite his flaws, that include his dour mood and his lack of empathy for others, his unconventional personality and basic decency have endeared this shambling detective to millions of readers.

author Henning Mankell

In The Troubled Man, Mankell leaves little doubt that we are witnessing the swan song of the Wallander novels given Kirk’s diminishing career prospects and his deteriorating health. Yet for readers of the earlier novels, one of its pleasures is the comfort of revisiting familiar characters and their history. Old cases to be sure are invoked but the primary focus in this elegiac novel is on Wallander, his physical and mental state, and his relationships with the most important people in his life. He fears that he is becoming like his dead father: sullen and losing his memory. He has regrets about the relationship with his alcoholic ex-wife, Mona, and experiences deep longings over the great love of his life, the Latvian widow, Baiba Liepa, whom we first met in The Dogs of Riga who could not, despite her love for him, marry another police officer. Her importance to Wallander is present in later novels primarily in his thoughts, telephone calls and through letters, sometimes unsent. She reappears in The Troubled Man with devastating news that evokes emotions from Wallander that we have not experienced from him before. It is significant that in the interviews he does conduct in the case he unofficially investigates, instead of embarrassment or brusqueness, he develops some empathy; “a lump in his throat” is frequently indicated when he listens to others. Wallander also attempts to repair after a fashion his relationship with his daughter, Linda. She emerges as a mature woman who deeply cares about her father even as he exasperates her. For readers familiar with their estrangement chronicled in earlier novels, it is moving to witness their developing reconciliation. Through her and the father of his granddaughter, Klara, he is invited to the seventy-fifth birthday of her future father-in-law, Haken von Enke, a retired naval commander who reveals to him his obsession about an incident that occurred during the 1980s when he cornered a foreign submarine in Swedish waters but allowed it to escape.

That occasion sets in motion a series of events that are new to the Wallander novels as Mankell departs from the police procedural and enters John le Carré territory of international espionage. Because of a memory lapse that is interpreted as carelessness on his part, he is suspended from the force. With time on his hands, his curiosity is piqued after the upper-class von Enke suddenly disappears, followed by his wife, Louise, a few weeks later. When his suspension is lifted, Wallander’s heart is no longer in his police work and he pursues the mystery surrounding Linda’s future in-laws. He deploys his usual investigative methods but being an apolitical citizen, he must acquaint himself with the geopolitics of the Cold War and Sweden’s place in it. Like a character in a le Carré novel, Wallander uncovers high level skullduggery and deceptive appearances. Some readers may be uneasy with the resolution of who was spying and for whom, but the thriller component of the novel always remains secondary to the resolution that Wallander is seeking for himself, and that undertaking delivers a greater emotional wallop.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be available for readers by early February 2013.

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