Henning Mankell had every right to end his Kurt Wallander series when and how he wanted to. But couldn’t he have thought of Wallander’s loyal and long time fans, just a little? Thrown us a Scandinavian bone? We’ve had to accept that The Troubled Man was the last Wallander novel instead of expecting three or four more.
Wasn’t that enough?
Mankell wrote in his final book of the Kurt Wallander series, The Troubled Man, published in English last year:
“Wallander suddenly felt terrified. His memory had deserted him again. He didn’t know who the girl running toward him was. He knew he’d seen her before, but what her name was or what she was doing in his house he had no idea.
“It was as if everything had fallen silent. As if all colors had faded away and all he was left with was black and white.
“The shadow grew more intense. And Kurt Wallander slowly descended into darkness that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease.
“After that there is nothing more . . .”
The little girl he couldn’t recognize was his cherished granddaughter, Klara.
Is this any way to treat Mankell’s globally beloved character?
As a writer, I search for the characteristics that endear Wallander to us. We love Wallander, for instance, not because he does everything right, just the opposite. He’s a flawed individual like the rest of us. But this “antihero” is the top detective for the police department of Ystad, Sweden, and a brilliant crime solver. Throughout his nineteen fictional years, translated into forty languages, a distraught Wallander has taken personally battling espionage, white slavery, misogynists, an attempt to assassinate Nelson Mandela, corruption in the Balkan state of Latvia, persecution of immigrants in Sweden, an attempt to destroy all the world’s computers, and apprehending serial killers before they strike again, to name a few of his challenges.
We love him even more when he throws caution to the wind altogether. In The Man Who Smiled he’s sprinting through a crowded airport flailing his gun creating panic with terrified people fleeing from him in every direction. But action was necessary to catch the international criminal who sold human organs and was about to take off in his private plane and disappear forever.
This wild scene puts a smile on my face because one never knows what Inspector Wallander will do to apprehend a criminal, such as breaking all the police procedural rules, defying his superiors at the department, and no matter the price to his life and limb.
You can always count on Wallander to get the bad guy. But as a result of his dedication to crime fighting, Wallander’s personal life is in shambles.
His wife Mona, divorces him, his daughter, Linda, often scolds him for being thoughtless and not seeing more of his own failing father, an artist who paints the same painting 7,000 times and who dies of Alzheimer’s disease. But not before Wallander accompanies him on a trip to Rome in The Fifth Woman.
I’ve known many people, real and fictional, who have done far less for their fathers.
He’s reckless with his diet. He’s overweight and, at times, drinks too much, and exercise is an empty promise he makes to himself on a regular basis. When he finally becomes a diabetic, he’s ashamed of it and tries to hide it in One Step Behind. He promises himself that he’ll start a new and healthy routine, but, again, the public’s safety trumps his health and his relationships.
As a result, he never finds another love to live with for the rest of his life. He is afraid of ending up alone with the exception of visits from his daughter and former visiting colleagues “who had suddenly remembered that” he “was still alive.”
You have to chuckle at lines like that because Mankell blatantly delivers the unvarnished truth of the frailties of human existence. I don’t think they are meant to make us laugh, but I do laugh. I also love it when Wallander, in a fit of roiling frustration and usually during a meeting at the station regarding a troubling case, slams his hand down on a table just for relief without saying a word.
In The Troubled Man, Wallander is fifty-five, when he gets a house with a view of the sea and a dog, both of which he’s dreamed of for years. After living happily there for four years, his daughter announces that she is pregnant. This changes Wallander’s life forever, according to Mankell. Wallander almost tells his colleagues of “the great joy he has just been gifted with.” But he doesn’t share his “great joy” because it is his nature to keep his private life to himself.
I don’t recall that Wallander experiences much “joy” in any of the other nine books, starting from the first in the series, Faceless Killers, which, it is said, sets the example for Scandinavian noir.
Wallander is just about sixty or so when his creator tells us that he’ll spend the last ten years or so of his life sinking slowly into nothingness.
Are we to accept that noir bleakness for this globally loved character without a peep? Just at the moment in life when Wallander finally finds “joy” and could have time to spend with his family?
Didn’t Wallander earn at least a decade of happy retirement in relative good health, and without being at times “terrified?” Shouldn’t he be gazing at Skåne sunrises and sunsets and building a sandcastle or two with his granddaughter?
I have found my own peace of sorts. As a writer, I will continue to reread Wallander until the end of my sunsets watching the master storyteller weave his Scandinavian yarns, and Wallander will continue never to disappoint.
But I ask you, how would you have ended the fictional life of the dutiful, brave, and brooding Inspector Kurt Wallander?
Dorothy Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z, due out in 2013 from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery.