An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankel

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Translated by Laurie Thompson

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

This book is a bit of a curiosity. When it arrived and I realised what it was, I wondered if it was worth a full-length review, but in the end I decided to go for it. Why the doubts, you may be asking yourself. Well, because this is not a full-length novel. In fact it would be kind even to describe it as a novella. At 149 pages of  (quite large font) text, it is actually a short story, though a couple of bonus items by Mankell at the back swell it by another 20 pages.

The story was written in 2004, for a particular purpose. As Mankell describes it,

It had been decided in Holland that everybody who bought a crime novel in a certain month would receive a free book. I was asked if I would write a story. It was a good idea – making people more interested in reading.

The story was duly published – in Dutch. Possibly that might have been the end of it, but the BBC discovered it and adapted it for one of the Kenneth Branagh Wallander TV shows. This version is the first time the story has been published in English, beautifully translated by Laurie Thompson.

Right – now we’ve got that out of the way, what of the story itself? As surely everybody knows, Kurt Wallander is a police officer who lives and works in the town of Ystad, not far from Malmo in southern Sweden. Beginning in 1991 with what appeared in English as Faceless Killers (1997), Wallander has appeared in twelve novels, of which The Troubled Man (2011) has been definitively declared by Mankell to be the last. Chronologically, in terms of the protagonist’s life, An Event in Autumn is the penultimate book in the series. So Wallander is aging, not particularly well (he is diabetic) and (as always) disillusioned with his life. He is sharing a flat with his daughter Linda, also a police officer, and the two of them bicker a lot though they are obviously fond of each other. But Wallander has a desire to move out into the country, so when his colleague Martinson offers him the keys to a house owned by a relative of his, he agrees to go and take a look.

The house turns out to be remote, shabby and neglected, but Wallander can envisage himself living there – he walks round the garden, imagining the dog he will acquire, who will be taking the walk with him. He’s about to drive away when something strikes him – he has seen something in the garden, though he’s not sure exactly what it was.

He looked round and before long found what he was looking for. He stared long and hard at the object that was sticking up out of the ground. At first he just stood there motionless, but then he walked slowly round it. When he returned to his starting point Wallander squatted down. His knees felt stiff.

There was no question about what was lying there, half buried in the soil. It was not the remains of an old rake. Nor was it a tree root.

It was a hand.

Wallander’s discovery decidedly, and not surprisingly, puts him off buying the house, but as the hand is attached to a body, and another body soon turns up also buried in the garden, a full police enquiry is soon in motion. Once the approximate time of death is discovered, Wallander sets out to investigate the house’s past, and the identity of the people who lived there. Delving back into history he needless to say encounters some false leads and talks to a variety of most ancient and decrepit people in his quest for the truth. Eventually, of course, he finds it, putting himself in grave danger as he does so. But all ends – I was going to say happily, but that’s not really a word you’d apply to Kurt Wallander. Satisfactorily, anyway, and with something for Kurt to look forward to in the future.

Henning Mankell’s afterword, which tells the story of the birth and development of Wallander, ends as follows:

my story about Kurt Wallander come has now to an end. Wallander will soon retire and cease to be a police officer. He will wander around in his twilight land with his black dog Jussi. How much longer he will remain in the land of the living I have no idea. That is presumably something he will decide for himself.

I can’t imagine that fans of Wallander, of whom there must be many millions, will be put off by the brevity of this story. As in the full-length novels, although some interest attaches to the solution of the crime, the greatest pleasure is always the character of the man himself: his problematic lifestyle and bad eating habits, against which he is constantly struggling, his occasional bursts of anger, his loneliness, his frequently difficult relationships with his colleagues, his disillusionment – but also his brilliance, and his flashes of intuition. He is a truly great creation, and this little book deserves to be snapped up as the last time we will ever meet him. And, if you’re not already a fan, it would serve as an excellent introduction to the longer novels in the series.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Henning Mankell, An Event in Autumn, translated by Laurie Thompson (Harvill Secker: London, 2014). 9781846558078, 169 pp., hardback.

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