A journey into the Cold War’s past

2011-07-06 00:00

EVERY morning, retired naval officer Hakan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. One winter’s day, though, he fails to return — he’s vanished, apparently without trace.

Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation, but he has a personal interest in the case because Hakan’s son is engaged to Wallander’s daughter, Linda. Besides, at Hakan’s 75th birthday party a few months earlier, he’d noticed that the old man seemed uneasy, and yet keen to talk about a mysterious and controversial incident from years ago.

When Hakan’s wife Louise also disappears, Wallander is determined to uncover the truth. He’s led into a dark past — a grim journey involving espionage, betrayal and new information about Cold War events, whose revelation could well create a terrible international scandal for Sweden.

Vintage Mankell, this, using fiction to explore and seek answers to real — often ­enormously embarrassing — questions, constantly probing the reasons why people, even those outwardly most upright and honourable, see fit to deceive and mistreat others, sometimes on a frighteningly large scale.

Although this could stand alone as a story of the horrors of the Cold War era, Mankell develops it by using the journey into Sweden’s past as a window into Wallander’s. For, as he proceeds, the detective finds himself revisiting his own hopes and regrets, the difficult relationship with his artist father, his lost loves.

Is the past becoming somehow more accessible than the present? Has he ever truly known those he’s loved most? What is the dark shadow that sometimes seems to fall across his life?

This is Kurt Wallander’s final case: the last time we shall encounter this flawed, dogged, sometimes disaffected, sometimes inspired fictional character, who has earned the regard — even the love — of readers everywhere.

Unlike Nicholas Freeling and Colin Dexter before him, Mankell does not kill his detective off. Instead he gives us a brief melancholy glimpse of what that deepening shadow is, and hints at what the future may hold. With this, he seems to ask us to respect both Wallander and himself: we should not, he seems to say, ask for more.

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