When Britain produces world-famous popular literature, it is from people like J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett who write about worlds of fantasy, wonder and hope. But nearby Sweden’s contribution to the global best-seller market is the edgy mystery thriller, with isolated heroes and heroines solving brutal crimes against the backdrop of social and political decay. Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell have both become world famous for this atmospheric fiction.
For two decades Mankell has been telling the story of Kurt Wallander, the divorced, brilliant, and somewhat misanthropic inspector in the Swedish town of Ystad.
It wouldn’t be a Wallander novel – or apparently a Swedish mystery – without a backdrop of worry and fear of the future with seemingly no one able to fix things. In The Troubled Man, the tenth and final (according to Mankell) novel in the series, Wallander, now 60, is struggling with growing older, unable to shake bad habits of diet and lack of exercise despite recurring memory loss and a barely controlled case of diabetes.
The plot of The Troubled Man revolves around the parents of his daughter Linda’s boyfriend. When each disappears separately, Wallander pursues the mystery of their disappearance and the inevitable murder. The naval officer husband has been brooding for years over a 1980s incident when the country’s political leaders obstructed the attempted capture of a possible Russian submarine in Swedish waters. Now Wallander must try to unravel the mystery of the disappearances and a growing sense that he has stumbled upon an international spy ring.
Author Mankell once told an interviewer that he often plants unexplained clues in his stories. They’re not quite red herrings; he said he was trying to reflect the reality of murder cases, where some things go unexplained and coincidences are mistaken for real clues. This practice of Mankell’s has always lent a realism to his books that is missing from many popular mysteries, where every part of the puzzle fits. He also rarely has strokes of inexplicable inspiration, crafted in many mysteries to produce story momentum. Instead, when the inspector establishes a breakthrough in one of his cases, it is the result of trial and error, the stitching together of disparate clues, and clear thinking.
Depending on your politics, you might not be impressed with the ultimate answers Mankell delivers about the spying plotline. But when you dive into a Wallander book, you should know that Mankell’s left-wing politics are never far from the surface.
Readers who love the darkly atmospheric Wallander series will not be disappointed in The Troubled Man. Readers who dread Swedish gloom would do well to stick with the tales of Rowling’s boy wizard.