Review: The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
Harvill Secker, €21.99
Published 02/04/2011 | 05:00
No more Wallander? Nearly a quarter of a century after his first appearance, readers must say goodbye to their favourite unhappy cop. Henning Mankell, his creator, is hanging up his detective shield. The new Wallander book, The Troubled Man, is the last.
Mankell is on record as saying: "I don't even particularly like the man." But, readers will howl, that's not the point: we like him. And now we're going to have to do without.
This is hardly the first time readers have been abandoned by authors. In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was so fed up with being known solely as the creator of Holmes that he threw him over the Reichenbach Falls while in pursuit of master-criminal Moriarty. Conan Doyle left no room for ambiguity: he called the story The Final Problem, and after it he planned to devote his time to historical fiction, which he thought he wrote rather well.
Audiences, however, failed to agree, and in 1901 he brought Holmes back in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was set before Holmes's supposed death. Popular demand was still not satisfied, and two years later Conan Doyle was obliged to return to the grind of producing regular Holmes stories, miraculously resuscitating the dead detective. (He had faked his death and travelled in Tibet. The way you do.)
Agatha Christie was more pragmatic. She wasn't prepared to kill off her golden goose, even if she didn't much like him ("He is the most extraordinarily irritating little man," she once said), and went on hatching profitable Poirot stories into her eighties, though she tucked away a final manuscript, Curtain, in which Poirot (spoiler alert: look away now!) is the murderer.
Television makes our relationship with fictional detectives even closer. David Suchet has been Poirot in our sitting-rooms for 22 years; and while Colin Dexter wrote only 13 Morse novels, there were more than 30 episodes on television. We learnt to love the rumpled, bad-tempered Morse, and what is more, we learnt to care about his wife, his office colleagues, even his car: after all, it was there in front of us every week.
And this is the core: detective fiction of this nature is soap opera. It becomes entwined in our own lives, and we learn to like the characters in Morse as much as we do our own families, or The Archers.
Some 150 years ago, Charles Dickens proved that serial is the way to the readers' hearts, rather than their minds: if Oliver Twist showed up monthly on our doorsteps, we would learn to love him. Sherlock Holmes appeared in the monthly Strand magazine, reassuring in his regularity.
And from the days of Agatha Christie, crime fiction has followed this path. Most crime novelists with a series deliver a book every year, a routine that allows us to follow their stories, not just crime by crime, but watching the subsidiary characters as they develop. A friend said to me after a new instalment of Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti appeared: "Did you know that Raffi has a girlfriend?" I looked at him with contempt: "Of course," I replied, "he's been going out with Sara Paganuzzi from the flat downstairs for ages."
But while we're fond of these offspring of the authors, it's easy to see why the authors are less so, and perhaps feel trapped. It takes me a weekend to read a Donna Leon; it must take the author the best part of a year to write one. Ruth Rendell said, before she ended her Wexford series, that she found the formula constricting: she wanted to try other things (and in her case she has, very successfully).
Perhaps that's what Mankell feels. He created Wallander when he was 42. Now he's 63, and I guess his interests have changed. Wallander's haven't, because that's part of the deal: we want comfort, familiarity from the genre. Develop the characters and you lose your audience. But stick to the same formula for decades, and you lose your mind.
So instead, Mankell has decided Wallander will fall prey to his own mind, as his lapses of concentration and memory increase. Other writers have hedged their bets. Ian Rankin has probably retired Rebus, whose last case occurred in the final three days before his official retirement. Michael Connelly retired Harry Bosch, then brought him back, and mixed him in with other detectives from his Mickey Haller and Jack McEvoy series.
Others defy the years to produce detectives who must secretly be vampires, so young do they remain while their readers age. Robert B Parker produced 41 Spenser novels and in the early ones Spenser was said to have fought in the Korean War (1950-53). So when he is beating his adversaries to a pulp in the first decade of the 21st century, it does raise some eyebrows. To (mis-)quote When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have whatever he's having."
To the regular reader, Spenser was obviously an alter-ego for Parker: this is what I'd be if I could. For a while, it was charming. Then it became embarrassing. Because authors definitely can fall in love with their detectives.
When Adam Dalgliesh first appeared in PD James's Cover Her Face in 1962, he was perfect. A handsome, single detective with a secret sorrow: what's not to love?
But 46 years later, he was still single. His author appears to be more than a little in love with him, and can't bear to find him a permanent mate: she is his soul-mate, the later novels seem to be saying. Detective fiction doesn't have much verisimilitude. Readers are happy to gloss over authors' lack of familiarity with police procedures, or with firearms.
We don't question magical plot devices: Mikael Blomkvist's supernatural skill with women in the Stieg Larsson trilogy; Signorina Elettra's preternatural computer hacking in Donna Leon's novels.
We don't even mind that Taggart on television has had no detective named Taggart for more than half its life. But Adam Dalgliesh was a fairly senior policeman in Scotland Yard's hierarchy in 1962; in 2008 he is still detecting and moping. Couldn't he just take his pension and find a good therapist?
Yet it is rare that reality breaks in on the relationship between reader and detective. Reality is not the point. The point is comfort, and familiarity.
And that's why when someone we "know", like Wallander, is stricken, we are stricken, too. If it can happen to him, who has in effect become one of our family -- well, none of us is safe.
Judith Flanders is the author of The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Invented Modern Crime (HarperCollins)