“The feeling of growing old was oppressive. He quickened his pace, in order to get away from himself.” – The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
As the novel opens, Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda is living with Hans von Enke, scion of one of Sweden’s most distinguished military families. To Wallander’s delight, Linda has recently given birth to a daughter, Klara. All seems golden – for the moment.
But such moments, alas, are fleeting, in fiction as in life. Following a celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday, Hakan von Enke, a retired submarine commander and Hans’s father, drops out of sight. Family, friends, former naval colleagues – all are clueless as to his whereabouts. For Linda Wallander and her father, both police officers, cluelessness is a condition that cannot be tolerated – especially when the mystery strikes so close to home.
Wallander is on vacation; his daughter is on maternity leave. The police, they are assured, have the matter of Hakan von Enke’s disappearance well in hand. But that’s not enough for father and daughter. Wallander begins delving into the mystery on his own, with Linda helping when and where she can. Their investigation has barely begun when yet another family member goes missing. A bizarre set of circumstances has become even more baffling. The inquiry widens and goes deeper. Ultimately it is about much more than one family’s tragedy, involving as it does Sweden’s recent history, its civic and military institutions and the country’s relations with Russia and the U.S.
This was an extremely compelling story on every level. But I wouldn’t want to give the impressions that Kurt Wallander and Linda worked together in frictionless harmony. Theirs is a very fraught relationship. Both have hair trigger tempers, and Linda is blunt to a fault. In addition to the static between the two of them, they have to deal with Linda’s mother Mona. She and Kurt divorced years ago, but she is still a presence in Linda’s life, and to a lesser extent in Wallander’s as well. She too is prone to fits of anger and has a drinking problem to boot. Her second marriage is in the process of disintegrating.
But more than anything, this novel is about one man’s reckoning with his own mortality. At the age of sixty, Kurt Wallander sees himself as a man whose powers, both physical and mental, are in decline. He broods upon this frequently, one might almost say obsessively. The fact is that Wallander does have some serious health problems. Most notably he is diabetic. He does not take care of himself as he should, not getting enough exercise, eating the wrong food, and drinking more than he ought to. He falls in to the all too common pattern of resolving to do better and then reneging on that resolution. Of more immediate concern are the occasional memory lapses he’s been experiencing.
And yet, and yet…he forges ahead doggedly, determined to solve the mystery of Hakan von Ende’s disappearance. And every once in a while, he feels a return of his former vitality: “He paused in the parking lot and breathed in the summer night. He was going to live for a long time yet. His will to live was still strong.”
In the best crime fiction, minor characters are delineated with the same care as their main counterparts. This is nowhere more true than where witness interviews are concerned. In one of my favorite scenes in The Troubled Man, Wallander goes to interview an elderly widow who used to wait tables at exclusive venues catering to high ranking members of the military. Her name is Fanny Klarstrom. She lives by herself in a senior living facility:
When Fanny Klarstrom opened the door–immediately, as if she had been standing there for a thousand years, waiting for him–she gave him a broad smile. He was the longed-for visitor, he just had time to think before she ushered him into her room and closed the door.
This,despite the fact that he has arrived unannounced.
We learn more about Fanny – and inevitably, about Wallander and his own worries:
Fanny Klarstrom had wavy blue hair, and was tastefully made up–perhaps she was always ready to receive an unexpected visitor. When she smiled she displayed a beautiful set of teeth that made Wallander jealous. His own teeth had begun to need filling when he was twelve, and since then he had been fighting a constant battle with dental hygiene and dentists….At the age of eighty-four, Fanny Klarstrom had all her teeth, and they shone brightly as if she were still a teenager. She didn’t ask who he was or what we wanted, but invited him into her little living room, where the walls were covered in framed photographs. Well-tended potted plants and climbers stood on windowsills and shelves. There’s not a single grain of dust in this apartment, Wallander thought.
A classy lady, in other words, who copes with loneliness in a dignified and courageous manner.
Wallander proceeds with the interview. His business with Fanny Klarstrom concluded, he takes his leave of her:
She waved as he drove away. That’s a person I will never see again, he thought.
(There’s a great deal of dental anxiety in this book. Sure enough, as he’s conversing with Fanny Klarstrom over coffee and cookies, Wallander loses a filling!)
At 367 pages, The Troubled Man ran a bit long; at least, it seemed to for this reader. The problem may have been that I was getting somewhat exasperated with the unrelenting gloom. (I may not have mentioned that there’s plenty of description of the weather, nearly all of which is bad.) I would have been grateful for some comic relief. About three years ago, Telegraph reviewer Jake Kerridge commented that “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” That bon mot was firmly lodged in my brain as I worked my way through some of the darker passages in The Troubled Man.
Yet I do not want to discourage you from reading this novel. True, it is suffused with melancholy, but it is beautifully written (and by implication beautifully translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson). The plot unfolds in a tantalizing manner, revealing once again Henning Mankell‘s masterful storytelling technique. The characters are vivid and very engaging. I especially loved the relationship of Wallander and Linda, sparring partners who are also fiercely loyal and loving. And there is one light, constantly shining for Kurt Wallander despite the encroaching darkness: the presence in his life of his granddaughter Klara.
He was surrounded by silence. At submarine depth, where the restless movement of the ocean was undetectable.