Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Review: An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell tr. Laurie Thompson

An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell, tr Laurie Thompson (September 2015, Vintage, ISBN: 1784700843)

There was no sign of other bones. Just that hand sticking up out of the ground. He bent down again and poked cautiously into the earth. Was there a whole skeleton under there, or was it just the hand? He was unable to decide for sure.

I was writing this piece about the “Wallander” novella AN EVENT IN AUTUMN when the news broke that it's author, Swedish writer and playwright Henning Mankell, had died. Mankell was my first introduction to Scandinavian crime fiction and for me he was its yardstick. As such, the quote that starts this review is not just an example of good writing but could well stand for the essence of good crime fiction. The irony is that Mankell never set out to be a crime writer. He had returned to Sweden from a long stay in Africa in the early 1990s and was struck by the increase in racism in Swedish society. He decided he wanted to write about it and he also decided that a crime story was the perfect vehicle for writing about the subject and that he would need “a policeman” to carry out the investigation. Thus Kurt Wallander, a character intrinsic to Scandinavian crime fiction, was born.

AN EVENT IN AUTUMN started as a novella for the Dutch market. Some of its plot points were later taken as foundation for an episode in the third season of Kenneth Branagh's BBC television's Wallander series. The novella itself was translated into English by veteran Mankell translator Laurie Thompson (who, sadly, also died earlier this year) and published in the UK for the first time in 2014. It is beautifully written and equally beautifully translated.

Ystad, Sweden. October, 2002.
Wallander has worked until the early hours. He is tired. He reviews his feelings about being a policeman, now, at this time, then leaves the office for his flat which he currently shares with his daughter Linda. It's Linda who wakes him next morning with news of a phone call, much to Wallander's annoyance. It is his day off, he shouts. But Martinson isn't calling about a case, he is calling about a house. It belongs to a relative of Martinson's wife. The relative has had to go into a home and now they want to sell the house. Is Wallander interested in looking at it? That dream of a house in the country and the companionship of a dog? Wallander walks to the police station where Martinson gives him a bunch of keys and tells him that the house is not far from where Wallander's father used to live. Wallander isn't too sure about that but takes the keys, collects his car and drives out into the countryside – to what turns out to be an old farmhouse standing in a neglected garden of fruit trees and currant bushes. He enters the house and walks around the rooms. It would need work. It's been neglected. Then he rings Martinson and after some cautious, reluctant haggling he says that he will take it but that he wants to discuss it first with his daughter. He walks around the house again, taking note of things to be done, trying to imagine living there. Once more he goes out into the garden, tasting the water from the pump, imagining a bowl of water set out for a dog. Back in his car he hesitates. He had seen something when he had tripped in the garden. A small rake? A root?….

What Wallander has found is a hand – the bones of a hand which lead to a search for the rest of the skeleton and an investigation into the past of the house and of its successive owners, their putative crimes and real crimes. This short novella, a crime story about a buried victim and a buried crime, successfully carries us from beginning to end in contemplative, smooth-flowing and psychologically observant narrative. For many reasons this is a book you cannot miss. Ending with an essay by Henning Mankell on the genesis of the Wallander novels and the relationship between the writer and his character “Kurt Wallander” (as seminal a character in crime fiction as Maigret, Marlow or Poirot) it also gives those who found THE TROUBLED MAN to be a difficult farewell to the character and series – a gentler, more autumnal remembrance of Wallander and his creator.

Lynn Harvey, England
October 2015

(Read an earlier Euro Crime review of AN EVENT IN AUTUMN.)

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