Wallander’s Last Stand
By Bill Ott
Tue, 03/22/2011 - 18:54
Readers whose knowledge of Scandinavian crime fiction goes beyond Stieg Larsson know that it was Henning Mankell who jump-started what has developed into a nearly 20-year golden age. The very fact that Sweden could foster a new spin on the Chandlerian hard-boiled novel seemed puzzling initially. How could there be crime novels in such a pristine region, full of nice people, liberal to a fault, the very antithesis of America’s mean streets?
No region is all that pristine, of course, including Sweden, but something had changed by the time Mankell started writing, something that transformed Scandinavia into a setting ripe for the hard-boiled style. It all started with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The breaking down of the Soviet Union, combined with Sweden’s liberal immigration policies, sent immigrants pouring into a region that had been defined by its insularity and lack of diversity. The resulting culture clash turned the tables on a lot of societal assumptions, prompting the same kind of racist hate crimes that have plagued the U.S. and other parts of Europe. Here was a hard-boiled melting pot waiting to be cracked.
Mankell cracked it. The appearance in the U.S. of Faceless Killers in 1997 announced the arrival not only of a major author but also of a new literary landscape. Much of the attraction of the American hard-boiled hero has been his (or her) unfailing ability to do what we could only dream of doing: stand up to danger with competence, courage, and a smart mouth. Mankell’s hero, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander, on the other hand, responds to danger with stooped shoulders and an overwhelming sense that his unfathomably chaotic world is more than he can handle.
Flash forward almost 15 years, and there are more Scandinavian crime novelists being published in the U.S. than most fans could name—except, of course, for Larsson, whom everyone can name, even delicate souls more comfortable with the gentle fiction of, say, Miss Read. And what of Mankell? With the same bitter irony that has always defined his work, he picks this moment to end the Wallander series. The Troubled Man, the 10th and final Wallander novel, finds the aging inspector suffering from memory problems and suspended from the police. With time on his hands, he throws himself into solving the disappearance of his daughter’s father-in-law, a former submarine commander who may have been living a secret life. As Wallander strives to determine if the commander’s public persona bears any relation to his private self, he launches another, more poignant investigation into his own past. Has he always been the man he feels he has become—“filled with self-pity, a thoroughly pathetic figure”?
This is a deeply melancholic novel, but Mankell, sweeping gracefully between reflections on international politics and meditations on the inevitable arc of human life, never lets his story become engulfed by darkness. Always a reticent man, Wallander shows an intensity of emotion here, a last gasp of felt life, that is both moving and oddly inspiring.
Stieg Larsson may be an international publishing phenomenon, but without Mankell to set his Swedish table, he might have been just another talented author with a limited audience.