Written by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson — A new Kurt Wallander book by Henning Mankell is a major literary event for fans of this troubled Swedish detective. Mankell was the first of the translated Scandinavian crime writers I discovered a decade ago and he’s still the best.
Indeed, it’s remarkable that a series largely written in the 1990s still has such a hold on our collective imagination. Crime fans are fascinated by Wallander: as well as nine previous novels, a collection of stories including his first case (The Pyramid) and a spin-off novel featuring his daughter (Before the Frost), the brooding cop in the town of Ystad has inspired three separate TV adaptations.
In fact, readers of An Event in Autumn may recognise the plot, which formed the basis of a 2012 TV film starring Kenneth Branagh. So this book is not entirely new – it was originally written for a Dutch crime festival – but it is published in English for the first time, along with an essay by Mankell about the origins of his detective.
The novella is set before the events of the poignant, final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man. The perpetually lonely, despondent detective is musing on mortality. Wallander misses his quarrelsome father who recently died, he’s the longest-serving officer in Ystad and he’s coping with diabetes, though this sometimes involves hiding empty wine bottles from his daughter. Linda is a trainee cop in Ystad and living in Wallander’s flat. Mankell’s portrayal of the relationship, defined by their “mutual and constantly increasing irritation”, is funny and touching.
With the ageing detective’s options narrowing, he decides to pursue the dream that’s within his reach: a house in the country and a dog by his side. Martinson, his colleague, hands him a bundle of keys for the empty property of an ailing relative in a care home. It needs work but the old farmhouse with the squeaking gate suits this weary policeman, who wants a bit of peace from the world.
After a bit of haggling, he’s ready to seal the deal. But then Wallander decides to explore the overgrown garden, where he’d stumbled over something in the grass. He goes back to the spot and makes a chilling discovery: a skeletal hand poking through the earth, as if trying to get his attention. Suddenly, Wallander doesn’t want to buy his dream house any more. But at least he’s got a case to occupy himself as the cold Swedish weather sets in.
However, it turns out to be a frustrating investigation that involves digging around in archives, trying to jog the memories of elderly locals and heading down a few blind alleys. As autumn turns to winter, Wallander displays his rage at the lack of resources for a case of murder that probably happened more than 50 years earlier. Bureacratic targets are getting in his way. But the job is the one part of Wallander’s life that’s a success. He makes a breakthrough and the property gives up more of its secrets.
An Event in Autumn is a short book – a long afternoon’s reading – so there’s no room for a really knotty puzzle. But it’s a thoroughly absorbing Scandinavian mystery with one of the greatest literary detectives of the last few decades. And Wallander faces more peril than you might expect in this case.
Mankell’s limpid, pared-down prose is akin to poetry at times and this is a book to savour. The characterisation is rich yet written with economy, whether it’s the gruff forensics officer Nyberg who’s called at all hours by Wallander, or the short-tempered Linda chastising her father for ogling a younger woman. It’s also a rare pleasure – despite his moods – to spend a little more time in the company of this detective.
“There are no more stories about Kurt Wallander,” Mankell writes in an afterword. As fans, we’ve come to accept this fact. But have we really heard the last of Wallander? Mankell seems to enjoy writing about the daughter as much as the detective in this novella. Perhaps it’s not too much to hope that the author will revive his Linda Wallander series and give her dad a supporting role.
An Event in Autumn is published on 4 September. The Swedish TV series Wallander was among our 20 best crime shows of all time. Click here to find out more.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars