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the troubled man

30 june 2011

The Troubled Man is for once, not Kurt Wallander himself, but a missing person he's trying to track down – a missing person who is the other grandfather of Linda Wallander's baby daughter, and whose troubles make Kurt Wallander's perpetual miseries seem like child's play.

The Troubled Man has also been widely publicized as the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. Author Henning Mankell's mechanism for disposing of Wallander is foreshadowed insistently throughout the novel, so isn't hard to guess, and it's delivered like an afterthought (and like a ton of bricks) in the book's final paragraph. I won't spoil the device, but it reminds me of tossing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach falls. You can try to get rid of a series hero in the most definitive possible way, but odds are he will be revivable if you're pressed by the public or your pocketbook.

Frankly I don't know why Mankell has soured so much on Kurt Wallander. Wallander is a pretty sour character himself, granted. But it's not like Mankell's other fictional creations are sugarplums. And many a police commissioner or private eye has proven capable of adventures that extend almost without limit, bounded only by an author's own death (and sometimes, as with James Bond, not even then). Perhaps, by writing off a series hero, an author can avert his own mortality?

Some authors find their series carried on by their own children. In a fictional inversion of this theme, Linda Wallander is always available to solve the mysteries of Ystad in her father's absence. But Mankell has kept Linda in relative reserve till now. Even in The Troubled Man, she's on the sidelines, commenting on the case of her quasi-father-in-law's disappearance only as a foil to her sleuthing father.

Kurt Wallander has always been a detective who solves crimes by sitting around and waiting for something to happen: "One Step Behind," as the title of one of Mankell's novels describes him. In The Troubled Man, he has more piecing together to do, and proves himself, even with diminishing capacities, to be smarter than your average super-spy. He also has a more personal interest in the case: it's really a matter for the Stockholm police, but as near kin to the missing person, Wallander uses his own vacation time to track down the troubled man. Of course, what would Kurt Wallander do on vacation, anyway, except sit in his apartment, stare at his belly, and forget to take his insulin.

The figure of Wallander's long-dead father continues to loom over this last installment in the series. Wallander senior has always been one of the most striking characters in Mankell's cast. Like an author of popular series novels, the elder Wallander created the same work of art over and over again. This seems a faintly ridiculous thing to do with one's life, but Wallander's father took his gift and his vocation with a fierce seriousness that seems oddly like the essence of dignity. One senses that Mankell is trying not to be Wallander senior, but (like the detective himself) becoming professionally more like him with every novel he writes.

Mankell, Henning. The Troubled Man. [Den orolige mannen, 2009.] Translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: Random House, 2011.