It’s a Mystery: “No person is without a shadow”
By Henning Mankell
In 2008, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo began what turned into a global phenomenon with his Millenium trilogy. Indeed, in 2011, all three novels remain on worldwide bestseller lists in all their incarnations. Today, almost every new Scandinavian crime novel is “The next Stieg Larsson.” It’s reminiscent of the days, not altogether gone, when every new spy novel was “The next John Le Carré.” But long before Larsson, there was Henning Mankell, who has been described as the master of Swedish noir. His finely wrought whodunits have sold millions of copies to date, and there is no reason to believe that his latest, The Troubled Man, won’t follow suit.
So while it’s true that Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s tattooed girl who played with fire and kicked a hornet’s nest worth of political secrets, must be credited with reinvigorating interest in crime fiction from the Nordic countries, it’s also true that this fact only serves to enhance the cachet of Mankell’s much-loved series dominated by his brooding, brilliant, middle-aged copper, Kurt Wallander.
And long before Mankell, the grandmasters of Swedish detective fiction were Maј Sјöwall and Per Wahlöö. Beginning in 1965 with Roseanna, the writing duo introduced the world to Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck. Over the next decade, the couple wrote a book a year—winning an Edgar for Best Mystery in 1971 for The Laughing Policeman which was made into a movie starring Walter Matthau as Martin Beck. The series concluded in 1975 with The Terrorists. Both Sјöwall and Wahlöö had worked as journalists and had been active in leftist politics, a background they share with Mankell and Larsson. By now, everyone knows that the left-wing, crusading journalist in Larsson’s novels is autobiographical. As for Mankell, he has said, “My books have always been variations on a single theme: Is the price of Swedish democracy today too high and no longer worth paying?”
But back to Beck: recently, a new edition of Roseanna was published with an introduction by Mankell. Reminiscing some forty years later, he says:
Today, as I reread the novel, I see that my first impression still holds true. The book has hardly aged at all….it’s a modern classic…Sјöwall and Wahlöö changed the genre….the homicide investigators emerge as ordinary human beings. There is nothing at all heroic about them…. I think it was a revelation to see such real people as police officers.
Beck became the model for the flawed detective who’s credible precisely because he’s not superhuman in his ability to shrug off the horrors he sees on the job. Not surprisingly, this is a description that fits Wallander to a T. Mankell has fashioned him in the mold of Beck, albeit with his own individual flaws.
The immediate inspiration for the Martin Beck series came, believe it or not, from Ed McBain’s Eighty-seventh Precinct novels, some of which Sјöwall and Wahlöö translated into Swedish in the 1960’s. McBain offered a precedent for the focus upon a central cadre of investigators, each with his or her own personality that contributes to the whole. In other words, the squad room as an ensemble. Beck is undoubtedly the hero of the series, but his colleagues also make important contributions—both as investigators and as commentators upon the investigations. So it is that Wallander muses on the death of a valued colleague, “An investigative team is like an orchestra. We’ve lost our first violinist.”
In Norway, which has its share of top-notch contributors to the genre, Detective Inspector Martin Beck also has quite a following. Jo Nesbø, who is one of Norway’s best, has said that his protagonist, the laconic Harry Hole, fits the original Beck mold of the imperfect detective, with a tendency to drink and absorb all manner of work-related issues into an already fragile personal life.
Imbibing to excess, it must be pointed out, is hardly particular to detectives. It is, nevertheless, very much a part of the life of Kurt Wallander, who has been berating himself for drinking too much since we first encountered him in Faceless Killers (1997). Now, almost a decade after Firewall (2002) comes The Troubled Man. In this the tenth volume in the Wallander series, the Swedish detective is facing a host of additional demons related to aging. Inching towards sixty and spooked by the images of his father’s dementia, a bizarre episode related to his own memory problems leads to his suspension from the Ystad police force. With time on his hands, he unofficially pursues a case close to home involving his daughter Linda and her father-in-law, Hǻkan von Enke.
At his 75th birthday party, Von Enke, a retired Swedish submarine commander, confides in Wallander about a 1980 incident on his watch involving an “unidentified” (Soviet?) submarine that “invaded Swedish territorial waters.” The commander is about to fire depth charges to bring the sub to the surface when last minute orders from on high force him to abort. It’s clear to Wallander the commander is still haunted by this bitter professional setback. Even more painful is that two years later Von Enke experiences a bad case of déjà vu:
“I’d been promoted to the very top of the Swedish naval defense staff.… On October 1 we had an alarm call that we could never have imagined… There were indications that a submarine, or even several, were very close to our base in Musko. So it was no longer just a case of trespassing in Swedish territorial waters; there were foreign submarines in a restricted area…. I knew we’d lose all credibility if we couldn’t force one to the surface…. And then, at last, came the evening when we had trapped a submarine…cornered in such a way that it couldn’t move without our permission…. We were about to fire depth charges…four minutes before the attack was due to take place…we were ordered to abort the depth charge attack.”
By now, Von Enke has had more than enough brandy and is very close to rambling:
“I still keep trying to understand what happened…. And I think that now at long last, I’m beginning to get an idea of what was really going on.” Von Enke made a dismissive gesture. “It’s too early for me to say anything about it. I still haven’t come to the end of the road.”
And that, it seems, is that. It’s a story without an ending. And remains that way because a few days after he confides in a frustrated and confused Wallander, Von Enke disappears, and shortly after that his wife goes missing as well. Wallander’s hunt for them uncovers a shocking, highly personal secret best left buried. Further digging into the commander’s life leads toward what appears to be a real-life government cover up—a cold war scandal that could rock those currently in power. Except that there is no proof! Wallander has journeyed into a swamp “…where truth and lies are indistinguishable and nothing is clear.”
The Troubled Man widens the scope of Wallander’s investigations into the world of international geopolitics. He’s in Le Carré country, an implacable public watchdog, examining the devious interactions of politicians and the top military brass. Wallander learns that something known as the “great submarine debate,” the official response to foreign submarine operations in the Baltic during the 1980’s, is just the tip of a very treacherous iceberg. (Not surprisingly, Mankell himself considers the official handling of the real-life submarine incursions into Swedish territorial waters that occurred from 1982-1983 to be the worst scandal in Swedish political history.)
As Wallander closes in on the agent at the heart of the Von Enke mystery, the title conjures up a host of double meanings. Wallander emerges as the Everyman-turned-policeman who risks all to get at the truth that will allow him to feel his diminishing career has been meaningful. He is also the one who has survived in a merciless profession with grace and dignity. This is a deeply personal, meticulously crafted novel that in the end breaks your heart. It’s an indelible series finale.
Coda: One critic has called The Troubled Man a landmark moment in the genre comparable to the swan song of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus (Exit Music, 2008). There is one other memorable swan song in the genre: Auprès de Ma Blonde (1972), the last (10th!) in Nicholas Freeling’s Dutch Inspector Van der Valk’s series. There Van der Valk is, kicked upstairs to a quiet desk job to work out his days until retirement. But he’s still the maverick of the Amsterdam police force and a seemingly minor incident sets him off on a personal investigation that becomes—yes, he’s killed in the middle of it—his last case.
The end? No, just the beginning. Freeling steps in to tell us about the actual man after whom he modeled Van der Valk. We have not recovered from the shock of the inspector’s demise, but at least our suspicions have been confirmed: Van der Valk, under another name, did in fact exist. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Wallander legacy is similar. But imagination can be a powerful and comforting weapon.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.