One Step Behind

June 28, 2015

Death’s agents are hunting for us. Sometimes clever, sometimes striking blindly, they are dogging our footsteps. If we are intelligent, we may fend them off for awhile, but they are unrelenting and they will reach us in the end.

What does Henning Mankell have against his Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander? Apparently, it isn’t enough that Wallander’s life will, like our own, run its course. Mankell is determined to twist Wallander’s existence into an abject example of a miserable life endowed with noble purpose. Consider… Wallander’s personal relationships end in one disaster after another. His physical health is deteriorating in direct proportion to the number of murder cases he solves. Even his inner world is a shambles. Isolated and depressed, he indulges in the occasional fantasy of a happy life, but each fantasy only thrusts him deeper into depression and despair. Wallander is an unmitigated mess. And this mess constantly threatens to overwhelm the one area where he is a success: his work as a police detective.

The early Wallander books gave the impression that his circumstances were an unavoidable side effect of his devotion to duty, but One Step Behind blows that reading apart. The story begins at least one year or more beyond the previous hunt for the killer in The Fifth Woman and the intervening months have been quiet ones for Wallander. Work has not been oppressive, but his life is as screwed up as ever. It is this awareness that makes a reader begin to lose sympathy for Sweden’s most heroic detective. Sacrifice has its limits.

Perversely perhaps, this expectation does not pan out. One Step Behind may actually be the most compelling Wallander mystery that I have read to date. Perhaps it is because Wallander’s troubles are distilled into a single problem that is almost beyond his control: he is becoming a diabetic. Or, perhaps it is because the killer is a patient psychopath who strikes with care and with ease (the Patient Serial Killer was also the theme of The Fifth Woman, but the differences in their motivations are so large as to make the similarities tolerable). Or, maybe, it is because the combination of menace and the carefully scripted unfolding of evidence makes this an incredibly suspenseful thriller. Wallander’s diabetes goes untreated as long as the killer is at large (he is actually too ashamed to mention it to anyone) and he can barely drag himself from one page to the next. Which raises the question: when Death finally appears, will it come from a failing pancreas or the barrel of a gun?

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