Between brilliant, intuitive police work and the emotional wreckage of his personal life, detective Kurt Wallender is a man in transition who finds solace in opera but well understands the growing division in his country, accelerated by fear and a world suddenly without boundaries. When a farmer and his wife are brutally killed, Wallender barely has time to put the investigation in motion when the press releases the farmer’s wife’s dying word: “foreign.” A sleeping giant awakens, igniting the public’s fear of others and the ramifications of global immigration: an anti-immigrant group murders a man in a refugee camp out for a walk, a Somali with nine children. There is the promise of another killing to come.
Suddenly, Wallender is directed to focus on the more immediate threat, juggling the new murder, the as-yet unsolved deaths of the farm couple, his father’s dementia, and the consequences of divorce and a long estrangement from his daughter. Mankell sticks to a formulaic police procedural, but with the wrenching personal problems the detective must factor into a life dominated by his work. This is the classic case of a talented man in a profession that demands the sacrifice of family relationships. Despite an increasing tendency to drown his sorrows in alcohol - and pay the price for his indulgences - Wallender remains a skilled investigator with an eye to the vagaries of human behavior that suggest duplicity and a firm grip of the procedures in building a solid case for prosecution.
That he accomplishes his goal with two demanding cases and a life made messy by loss and grief only serves to endear this character to the audience. Wallender appreciates the nuances of society and justice; he is tormented by this accommodation, his passions inflamed by the frequent futility of a justice system that doesn’t always serve the needs of those in need. In the trenches, so to speak, motives, circumstances, hatred and grief often color the behavior of the victim and the perpetrator. Without order, even Sweden will fall victim to anarchy.
Awaiting the first real snowfall of winter, Wallender and his detectives scurry from one case to another, one interview to the next, combining the surplus of facts both helpful and worthless, a tedious process more often successful than not. At forty-two, Kurt is still a young man, though he often seems older given his pervasive sense of loss, personal responsibility and the weight of his work. Mankell unerringly hews to the protagonist’s fractured nature, a detective with a broken heart trying not to become his own worst enemy.
Contrary to most crime novels, the carnage at the farm isn’t solved quickly, in line with the plodding investigative work of real law enforcement departments. Mankell sets his novel directly in the path of countries threatened by porous borders, where the robberies and assaults of the past are viewed with nostalgia as crime becomes more random and thus more fearful. Straddling past and present, Wallender is exquisitely conscious of the unknowable parameters of the future: “We’re living in the age of the noose. Fear will be on the rise.”