Henning Mankell was, I think, the first Swedish author I read and I enjoyed his standalone books as much as his Wallander series. Mankell died in 2015 and his final book, After the Fire, has recently been published. It features Fredrik Welin who appears in the 2010 novel, Italian Shoes which I haven’t read and I was a bit daunted at starting what might be a difficult book to read without the backstory of the protagonist. As it turns out, After the Fire, works perfectly well as a standalone and was a substantial and interesting read.
Welin lives alone on an island in a Swedish archipelago and wakes up one night to find his house on fire. Although he manages to save himself, he is left with only the clothes he stands in and some money in his bank account. The police suspect that the fire was started deliberately and that Welin might himself be responsible for the destruction of his property. When his daughter, Louise, returns from France to see the remains of the house, old wounds and tensions resurface as Welin struggles to rebuild his life.
I suspected that After the Fire wasn’t particularly a crime novel and, although there’s a criminal act at the heart of the book, it’s as much a novel about loss, family and fragile friendships. Welin is of an age where his friends and acquaintances are infirm or dying and he’s wondering if he has the energy to start afresh. His relationship with his daughter is a difficult read. I found Louise to be incredibly unlikable as a character and nearly stopped reading the book as she’s just so destructive and her motivations are hard to fathom. Better portrayed is Welin’s relationship with the journalist Lisa Modin and his friendship with his former postman Jansson. During the course of the story, Welin has to cope with the gap between what he wants and what others are willing to give him.
Ultimately After the Fire is a satisfying read and left me with a sense of a life picking up. The relationships portrayed are bleak in parts and verged on the depressing which is unusual for Mankell’s writing. There’s certainly a sense of an older man coming to terms with loss and grief and I’d be interested to read of others’ responses to the story.
Fans of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books will know that the series has come to an end. Wallander, for reasons that were narrated in The Troubled Man, will investigate no more cases. However, it appears we have one last story. According to the book’s afterword, An Event in Autumn was originally written for a Dutch publisher to give away to purchasers of their crime novels. It’s not really a novella, more a longish short story but it is, nevertheless, very nice to revisit Wallander’s world.
The now ageing Wallander has always dreamt of owning a house in the countryside around Ystad. His colleague, Martinsson, tells him about a dilapidated house that he has inherited and which Wallander might want to visit with a view to purchasing. However, while inspecting the garden, Wallander discovers a skeletal hand and the police dig soon reveals the presence of two bodies. All the evidence suggests that the victims have been in the ground for a long time, so Wallander is forced to go back decades in time to discover the origins of the tragedy.
While reading An Event in Autumn, I couldn’t help thinking that it would have made an excellent full length novel. The story reminded me a little of Colin Dexter’s Morse book, The Wench is Dead. It was not only the historic aspect to the narrative but also the part played by Wallander. He’s always been a character who is fails to take his own health seriously. But in this short tale, there’s a foreshadowing of the trouble that comes in the final book.
There’s a decent plot and it’s a shame it wasn’t given the opportunity to open out in Mankell’s trademark way. There could have been plenty of twists and turns before we reached the final conclusion but the length of the story didn’t allow this. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable both for the glimpses into fifties Swedish attitudes and also for the descriptions of the wonderful Scanian countryside that we got when Wallander visited his father in earlier books.
Wallander fans will have already read the story, I’m sure. There’s an interesting essay at the back of the book by Mankell which confirms that this is it. There are no more Wallander tales and we really have reached the end.
Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.