READERS GUIDEThe introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Troubled Man, the final novel in Henning Mankell’s critically acclaimed and best-selling Kurt Wallander series.
IntroductionThe Troubled Man finds detective Kurt Wallander more brooding than ever. Now sixty, his health is declining, his memory failing, and his thoughts turning increasingly toward his own mortality. The only bright spots are the upcoming marriage of his daughter, Linda, to hedge-fund manager Hans von Enke, and the birth of his first grandchild.
But even that happy development has a serious downside. When Hans’s father, retired naval officer Håkan von Enke, goes missing, Wallander interrupts his vacation to plunge into what seems an insolvable mystery. There are no clues and no sense of whether Håkan has been killed or gone into hiding. Nor is it clear what the motive might be for either his voluntary disappearance or his murder. The waters get murkier when his wife, Louise, disappears not long after Håkan. Wallander now finds himself investigating not one missing person but two, in a case for which he bears no official, only familial, responsibility.
Equally disturbing are Wallander’s personal troubles. His loneliness is deepening, his diabetes worsening, and his powers of discernment diminishing. One evening, he drinks too much and leaves his service revolver at a restaurant. On several occasions, he loses chunks of time, finds himself somewhere with no memory of how he arrived or why he’d come. During the course of his investigation, he even suffers a minor heart attack. His ex-wife is drinking herself to death and making his life miserable in the process. His great love, Baiba, shows up unannounced in an advanced stage of cancer, to let him know she is dying and to say goodbye. He is haunted by painful memories and fearful thoughts of the future.
And yet Wallander’s doggedness, his shrewdness, his painstaking poring over facts and possibilities, and above all his remarkable intuition have not abandoned him. His search for Håkan von Enke takes him deep into family secrets and the heart of Cold War espionage, an aborted submarine operation in the Baltic Sea in the early 1980s in which a Societ vessel was forced to surface. From there, a maze of intrigue follows that requires Wallander to turn everything upside down to see it in the proper perspective—to force the truth into the light of day.
It takes every ounce of Wallander’s waning strength to put the puzzle pieces together. His tenacity, perhaps even more than his intuitive and deductive brilliance, is what makes Wallander such an appealing hero. He is tenacious and relentless—even as he exhausts himself—in fulfilling his sense of responsibility to his job and to the people he is sworn to protect.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The prologue to The Troubled Man concludes by asserting that this will be a story “about the realities of politics, this journey into the swamps where truth and lies are indistinguishable and nothing is clear” [p. 6]. In what ways can the book be read as an extended meditation on truth and lies, the discrepancy between appearance and reality?
2. Wallander is a very sympathetic and compelling character, yet as he appears in The Troubled Man he might not seem the most engaging protagonist. He’s sixty and in poor health, he’s forgetful, often irritable, and growing ever more obsessed with death. What makes him such an appealing character in spite of all this? What makes him unique? In what ways is he a kind of everyman?
3. Linda asks her father: “What does anybody ever know about another person? Isn’t that what you’re always reminding me of? Telling me never to be surprised?” [p. 265]. In what ways does the novel dramatize how difficult it is to ever really know another person? What are its most surprising revelations?
4. Wallander thinks that if “he had been a von Wallander, with a coat of arms and family motto, those were the words he would have chosen: sink or swim. That’s the way it had always been througout his life” [p. 173]. Why would Wallander choose “sink or swim” as his motto? How does it characterize his actions, his stance toward life and his detective work in particular?
5. Wallander carefully gathers evidence and works his way through it in an orderly, logical way. But he also relies on intution. At what junctures does his intution guide him in the right direction?
6. Wallander lets himself be decieved by Håkan. Does he fail to see through Håkan’s lies simply because Håkan is a good liar or is his failure partly due to his declining mental abilities? Should he have suspected Håkan earlier than he did? Why is he so willing to believe Håkan’s lies?
7. Why does Baiba’s death affect Wallander so profoundly?
8. How does Mankell manage to find the right balance between intriguing and frustrating his readers? Is it possible to discover the truth along with Wallander? Does Mankell give readers enough, or nearly enough, clues to solve the puzzle on their own?
9. Speaking of the weariness that comes from doing police work, Ytterberg asks Wallander: “How do we manage to survive it all?” Wallander replies: “I don’t know. Some sort of feeling of responsibility, I suspect. I once had a mentor, an old detective named Rydberg. That’s what he always used to say. It was a matter of responsibility, nothing more” [p. 203]. Why is this sense of responsibility so important to Wallander? To what does he feel responsible? What emotional and psychological toll does being a detective take on him?
10. What is the irony of Walander having Nordlander spy on the conversation in which Håkan admits he is a spy? Is Wallander himself aware of this irony?
11. Wallander is repeatedly frustrated by lies and deceptions in his quest to learn the truth about Håkan and Louise van Enke. And yet when he does finally discover the truth, he conceals it and deceives those who most wish to know it: Linda and Hans. What are his motives for keeping the truth a secret? Is he right to do so? Is the anonymous report he sends to Ytterberg enough? Where else does he lie in the novel?
12. In the afterword, Mankell writes that, while The Troubled Man is a work of fiction, “the most important things in this book are built on the solid foundation of reality.” That being the case, what does the novel suggest about the political realities of the Cold War? How surprising is it to learn of America’s spying on Sweden? What does the novel imply about espionage in our own time?
13. This may be the most intimate of the Wallander novels. What aspects of Wallander’s personal life are most compelling and poignant in The Troubled Man? In what ways is Wallander himself, rather than the mystery he’s trying to solve, the most engaging aspect of the novel?
14. Why might Mankell have chosen to end his Wallander series in this rather melancholy way, with Wallander losing his memory, fearing death, living in loneliness and finally sinking into Alzheimer’s? Is this a more fitting way to close the series than a more triumphant or dramatic ending would have been?
15. What has made Henning Mankell such a distinctive writer in the genre?