Book review: The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

The Troubled Man*
Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson
Harvill Secker, 2011.

The Troubled Man opens with a swift recap of events in Inspector Wallander’s life in the 5 years since the last novel in this popular ten-part series. He has moved from his flat in Ystaad to an old house in the surrounding countryside, near to where his (deceased) father, an unstable artist, lived. He’s still employed as a policeman but is considerably detached from his career, having stepped aside from the bureaucratic chain of command and connecting only with his longstanding colleague Martinsson. The investigations he undertakes are routine and intellectually undemanding, if emotionally distressing, usually involving domestic or drunken abuse of various kinds.

In the present-day, at the proper start of The Troubled Man, Wallander is 60 and is shaken from his routine when his daughter Linda, also a police officer but seemingly not based at the same station as her father, tells him she is pregnant and is living with the putative father, a financial investor called Hans von Ecke. Linda is like her father, irascible, independent and up-front: the two of them have an opinionated, close relationship and delight in the birth of the baby. Wallander meets Hans’s parents, Hakan and Louise von Ecke. Hakan is an ex-naval commander, at 75 somewhat older than Wallander, and the two men get on well – even to the extent that the reticent, noble-born Hakan begins to confide some worrying hints to the policeman.

The rest of the novel is a parallel tale: that of an “off the books” investigation by Wallander, enabled by his absence from work due to injury and taking accrued holiday; and that of Wallander’s own melancholy introspection and fears of “losing it”, from which only Linda, here symbolising the life-force, can release him. Although the troubled man of the title is identified as von Ecke, the description increasingly comes to apply more appropriately to Wallander himself, as he worries about his declining powers and reflects on his past. His depression, lurching sometimes into despair, is deepened by a visit from an old girlfriend (the romance between her and Wallander is told in a previous book, The Dogs of Riga).

How to sum up? The specific investigation undertaken by Wallander is very slow and drawn-out, mainly driven by his own self-curiosity and perhaps a desire to provide some clarity for Linda and Hans about Hans’s family. Although political convictions are central to the mystery, they don’t seem to be of much interest to Wallander. The least satisfying aspect of the mystery theme is that many small details are presented to the reader throughout, yet left hanging in the air at the end in a disappointing fashion – even though the main conundrum is solved. Individuals relevant to the case are similarly ignored, even after undertaking dramatic actions. The second main aspect of the novel, that of Wallander’s introspective inner life and his elegiac musings on the past (sometimes accompanied by real encounters), is perhaps more significant to the author, and I found this story very absorbing, not least in what it has to say about family relationships and loyalties. One would have had to have read all or most of the previous Wallander books to identify with it, I think. This latter theme is fully resolved, perhaps shockingly but in keeping with what we know of Wallander and his family. Despite its occasional plot flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think it a fitting end to this high-quality series.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for lending me her copy of this book. Her excellent Euro Crime review of this novel is here.

Other reviews: Daily Telegraph and LA Times (positive, well-written reviews), Independent ; Guardian (mean-spirited); Boston Phoenix (negative, with big spoiler).

The Wallander series, in reading order. (Not the same as publication order.) The series consists of ten novels and a collection of short stories (The Pyramid).

(*A quibble to the publisher: why is the book jacket a picture of a man looking at a snowy landscape? There is no snow in the book, but many lovely descriptions of the countryside round Wallander’s house, which surely could have made a more original cover design.)

23 thoughts on “Book review: The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

  1. Maxine – A lovely review – thanks! The Wallander series is a really fine series and I am sad that it’s ending. I’m glad that, overall, you enjoyed this one and thanks for the suggestion that readers catch up on the preceding novels before reading this one. I confess there are a few Wallanders I haven’t read yet, so I’m probably going to tackle them first and then read this one. Interesting how both this one and Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box use the “recap of the past” and “reflection on career” strategies although they do it in different ways…

  2. A fine, unspoiled review 😉

    I know that Mankell is a fine writer, and I enjoyed the first books in this series, but lately I have gone a bit off the ´Swedish pessimists´. I may return to the darker, more realistic Scandinavian crime novels later, but for now I will stick to my diet of lighter food.

  3. This is definitely a book for revelling in pessimism, Dorte! Not a hair’s breadth to choose between Wallander and Erlunder on the basis of this novel – if pushed I’d have to say that Erlunder is the more cheerful of the pair! I found the character study of W. in this book totally realistic and engaging, being able to identify with it effortlessly, but it does take a certain sort of mindset I suppose….for me, this aspect epitomises my liking for “psychological crime fiction” for want of a better term.

    Thanks to you and Margot for your kind comments.

  4. I’m leaving this for the moment as it sounds a bit too depressing, and after The Leopard I need a slightly lighter read. They used a sticker of Kenneth Branagh on Man from Beijing even when it wasn’t a Wallander so the snow does not surprise me. ;o)

  5. Thanks, Maxine, for an excellent review. I have not yet read the Wallender series, as I find Erlandur about as depressed a character as I want to read about, a brilliant detective who ruminates about his past. However, I like Henning Mankell as an individual and a writer, having liked “The Man from Beijing.” I will read more of his stand-alones.
    I am disturbed to see some critic’s attacks on Mankell, which I think are wholly undeserved. The man is a good writer and principled person in his work in Africa and other causes.
    On the cover, snow sells, or so I’ve read. Publishers like the Nordic climes’ books to show the cold weather; they think those covers raise book sales.

  6. As always a fine review that I was not scared to read. I have stayed away from the mainstream reviews of the book given all the talk of spoilers but I knew you would never do such a horrid thing. I won’t be reading the book yet but only because I am a long way behind on the Wallander books and I have them all sitting here awaiting me and can’t bring myself to read them out of order.

    Amazing to think of someone more pessimistic than poor Erlunder but being a natural pessimist myself I admit to enjoying such characters when the time is right. I’ve never really understood compulsively cheerful people 🙂

  7. Maxine,
    Thanks for your very fair review.
    The Guardian review was spiteful–but a good one in the Observer.
    I did not find the novel depressing -and people should not be put off
    by this factor.The book expresses Wallander’s longing for love-and although
    he is loved -he finds difficulty with closeness.

  8. Simon – That is a very perceptive point about the “longing for love”, with which I agree. The Guardian review was by Andrew Brown and having read Fishing in Utopia (about the author’s time in Sweden) I see it as an extension of that rather than really being a review of Mankell’s book. Philip Young has some interesting comments on this novel at his blog. I agree the Observer review (out today) redresses the balance, though it is only a book review at the end, the earlier parts are more about Mankell himself and about series in general.

    Kathy – Linda, Kurt’s daughter, is a character the author admires a lot, I think – she’s powerful and independent. For this reason you might like to read Before the Frost in which she’s the main character (though Kurt is in it), and it does not matter so much if you haven’t read the previous ones. Depressed Linda is not, though she has her issues!

    Bernadette, Jose and Norman, thanks for your comments. A “depression alert” is very appropriate for this novel (the ending reminds me a bit of Petra Hammsefahr’s The Sinner, though the two books are very different in other ways), but if one is in the mood it is a very good character study in my view.

  9. I bought this book but haven’t read it yet. I will be reading all of my Nordic Challenge books one right after another in June. Your review was great. You are always so thorough.

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  12. Maxine- Excellent review as usual.
    I am coming to the end of this book, and have found it very heavy going.
    The word depressing may appear in my review.

  13. I agree, Norman, it is depressing in the extreme. One for depressives of the world (of whom I am one) to wallow in I suppose…..the crime plot was very absorbing while it was unresolved but disappointing when it was. Linda is a great character, a real life-force in this book.

  14. Maxine -I finished it. Clearly it was not a book for me at this stage of my life. You managed the difficult task of reviewing without spoilers. I am puzzling how I might do that probably keeping it very short.
    I think the crime plot would have been less telegraphed to readers, who knew nothing of Mankell’s political persuasions. A very sad and a bit disappointing end to the series.

  15. I understand how you feel that way, Norman. Yes, the crime plot certainly was very much the author on his particular political drum…..almost Chomskyist if that isn’t giving too much away. Pity, as the set-up was good.

    As for the depressingness, I think the character of Linda is intended to be the life-force and to leave readers with a sense of optimism and of things moving on to the future (eg the baby, her attitude to policing etc).

  16. The fact that this novel manages to survive a thin to non existent plot, is a fitting epitaph to chronically depressed Kurt Wallender. The plodding, often rain soaked, Swedish detective painfully grinds his way to a solution. Perhaps the fact that the ‘solution’ has been obvious to the reader from the outset is reflective of Wallender’s equally obvious creeping senility.
    This slow moving police procedural/spy story does what Mankell does best: markedly reduce any desire the reader may have to visit Sweden. A mixture of Ian Rankin, John LeCarre, and a humourless Mordecai Richler does not work.
    The suspension of disbelief is difficult when the author’s political views are so vividly intertwined with the plot.

  17. Thanks for the comment, Duncan. My view differs from yours somewhat, in that for example I haven’t been put off from visiting Sweden. I agree on the other hand that the political heavy-handedness does not improve the crime plot. I found the account of Wallander’s state of mind, and his relationship with his daughter, particularly touching.

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