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an event in autumn

11 october 2015

Sadly enough, it took Henning Mankell's death to move An Event in Autumn from the stack of crime novels below my bedside table to the top of the active pile above.

I hadn't even known Mankell was ill, though his cancer was apparently widely publicized and he wrote quite a bit about facing death. An Event in Autumn, though written almost a decade before Mankell's cancer was diagnosed, is a part of that writing.

An Event in Autumn is the next-to-last of the Kurt Wallander chronicles in terms of story line, though it's the last to appear in English. It is a better ending to the famous detective series than The Troubled Man, which grafts Wallander's leavetaking from the Ystad police onto a somewhat contrived espionage plot.

Wallander, aging, wants to move to a home in the country and get a dog. His colleague Martinson knows of just the place, a house belonging to a moribund in-law. Wallander goes out to look it over. Being Wallander, he finds a human hand sticking up out of the clay in the back garden. The hand leads him to two long-buried corpses and to abandon thoughts of buying the house.

The cold case at the heart of the novella is in some ways incidental to its impact and themes. Everything in the economically-told story leads the reader to reflect on aging and mortality. Life is passing Wallander by more quickly every year. He is now the most senior of his colleagues, and he still feels like a newcomer. His father has died; his daughter is grown (and now works, and lives, alongside him, and is now the more competent of the two).

Though the mystery plot is not that exciting (in the better of the Wallanders, the mysteries don't tend to be exciting), it is important that it's a cold case. Most of the principals have died. The people who know their stories are their rapidly-aging children and grandchildren. Wallander spends a good deal of time in nursing homes talking to old cops and older suspects. He rummages through the contents of old houses. He doesn't quite put it together that soon someone will be rummaging through his. His own search for a home seems motivated by the need to leave behind something to rummage through.

An Event in Autumn has a curious textual history, which can be traced in the bibliographical citation below. It's actually the last of the Wallanders to appear in Swedish, as well as the last to be translated into various languages. Mankell wrote it for a bookstore promotion in the Netherlands in 2004. The first edition appeared in Dutch, and he did not think it important to publish a Swedish edition till 2012. (Henning Mankell, for all that he became a major international brand, seems not to have thought about self-promotion 24/7.) Mankell notes that the story, as Het Graf, drew little interest till someone at the BBC thought it would work well as an episode of the Kenneth Branagh TV series Wallander. He himself was reminded of the piece by watching Branagh. It's a spare book, made larger than it seems in the Vintage edition by thick paper and large font. But it's not a cheap capitalization on the Wallander brand; it's in some ways the best of the series, though it does depend on knowing the rest of the series.

Mankell, Henning. An Event in Autumn. [Het Graf, 2004, translated into Dutch by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen; first published in Swedish as Handen, 2012.] Translated by Laurie Thompson. 2013. New York: Vintage [Random House], 2014.

German title: Mord im Herbst
French title: Une main encombrante
Italian title: La mano