"The Troubled Man" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Henning Mankell: The widely heralded return of Henning Mankell's fictional but fallible and humane police detective Kurt Wallander is also a poignant farewell.
In this latest Wallander mystery, longingly awaited by fans worldwide, the Swedish master promises a "journey into the swamps where truth and lies are indistinguishable and nothing is clear." With a lengthy first chapter about mysterious long-ago submarine maneuvers, Mankell seems to be shifting into a political gear for Wallander's last stand.
But Wallander's attraction always has been familial and emotional: We wish it were his heart and soul lurking beneath the gruff exterior of any number of acquaintances. And it's soon apparent that something frightening and mysterious is overtaking Wallander the man. An unrelenting restlessness leads him to dinner alone at a restaurant in town, where he drinks too much and leaves behind his service revolver. The 60-year-old worries about shadows inside his head and feels removed from scenes that are intimate parts of his life.
His personal mystery, punctuated with the arrival of his first grandchild and the purchase of a tiny dream house by the sea, becomes as compelling as the professional question of why and how an enigmatic retired Navy officer has disappeared.
A flickering glance back at a smoldering love affair and several appearances by Wallander's ex-wife lend the detective depth, even as they reveal a frustrating cautiousness at his core. But the tale never descends into mawkish nostalgia. Instead, Mankell deftly weaves in the strained politics of peacetime military alliances and the understated beauty of Sweden's seaside geography and applies his exacting sense of character to produce a highly engaging modern mystery minus the lurid voyeurism that permeates most police drama.
Mankell wrote in a recent reissue of "Roseanna," the first police procedural by the prolific and groundbreaking pair Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, that it was a revelation to see police officers as real people when he first read their work as a teenager. But it took Mankell to combine that insight with elements of personality, culture, politics and happenstance and build complex characters who remain among the genre's most appealing.