Henning Mankell blipped onto my radar screen for the first time several weeks ago. I was in the mood to read a good detective story and discovered his latest book, “The Troubled Man,” in a brief summary toward the back of the New York Times Book Review. Mankell, I read, has an international reputation and is very popular in his native Sweden and in Germany. I bit.
“Troubled” is supposedly the last in Mankell’s Kurt Wallender series. Wallender is a fictional police detective in the small Swedish city of Ystad, in the southern part of the country. At age 60, he is a curmudgeon of moodiness and impatience, brought on by loneliness, a fear of death, resentment of his artist-father, regrets of a lost love and, in this book, a descent into the dark world of Alzheimer’s. Not to mention his diabetes and alcoholism. He can be deceitful, uncommunicative and cold. It is beyond imagination why anyone likes him but almost everyone does. The book is as much about Wallender’s life as it is plot.
Espionage, Sweden’s “neutrality” during the Cold War and its paranoia of the USSR and later Russia form the crux of the story. It is a plot not normally in the province of a lowly city policeman. But Wallender becomes enmeshed through his pregnant daughter Linda’s boyfriend, Hans von Enke. Hans’s father, Hakan, is a retired admiral in the Swedish navy and is seemingly obsessed with spying and Soviet submarines violating his country’s territorial waters during the 1980s. When first Hakan then his wife, Louise, disappear, the mystery is on and Wallender unofficially joins in the search for answers. There is a murder and rumors of a longtime female spy in the highest echelons of the navy that takes the detective to Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm and other places, small and large.
At the end of it all, “Troubled” is a hard book to like. It is rambling and descriptive details are sparse. The astonishing and dramatic conclusion have little basis in logic. Wallender moves through his murky landscape largely on instinct, his inability or reluctance to be more curious are maddening. And worst of all, where is one likeable character? Wallender himself can be deceiful, uncommunicative and rude. It defies imagination that anyone would like him but everyone does. Daughter Linda is far too bossy and Hans is remote and preoccupied with his career in high finance to the point he seems to care not a whit about his missing parents. The English translation by Laurie Thompson does not help. It is wordy, at times unclear and uses too many clichés.
The book made the New York Times bestseller list a week ago at No. 6 among hardbacks. Last week it was gone. And it got no truck on the lengthy E-Reader list, leading me to believe that in the U.S. at least Mankell has a small but dedicated cadre of readers willing to cough up big bucks to collect the author’s first-edition.
For me, I enjoyed most following on a map the Swedish places Wallender visited. His hometown of Linkhamn, near Malmo, the castle at out-of-the-way Glimmingehas and the little restaurant by the river at Soderkoping from where the climax springboards. Sadly, there was little else.