Heroine Addict 02: A Moodier Mystery
I heard Henning Mankell on NPR one evening at Petra’s apartment. I can’t stand to listen to radio (except to stream one awesome Montreal jazz station), but this show turned out to be interesting. Mankell, I learned, is best known for a series of mysteries starring a cop named Wallander, but he also writes “literary” fiction. On the radio, he came across as a warm, interesting, human fellow. I stole this image from his website, which is a great place to get a sense of who he is and what he’s about. Read his story about “Sofia.”
A week or two after the radio show, we were in a local Oakland bookshop that stocks a fine little section of international mysteries, I got the owner to figure out who I was talking about, having utterly forgotten the writer’s name. I opted not to pick one of the Wallander series, preferring to a more recent standalone novel.
Kennedy’s Brain is only nominally a mystery, and to call it a thriller would stretch my definition of “thrills.” Mankell is not interested at all in plot mechanics, so in that regard he’s sort of the anti-Dan Brown. The plot is pretty simple: A grieving woman tries to understand a tragedy that, like all real tragedies, can’t ultimately be understood. He spends page after page on the woman’s pain, to the point where it’s about halfway through the novel before we get the first sign that there’s even a bare possibility that any crime, mystery or conspiracy might be afoot. And when it’s all over, no criminals have been identified, no justice has been rendered, and no answers have been delivered.
I’m reminded of No Country for Old Men, with its image of a disinterested universe in which there is no justice, and the forces of darkness outnumber, and try harder than, the forces of good. And good simply has to carry on.
We meet Louise, a middle-aged Swedish archaeologist who returns from Greece to find her only son dead in his apartment. The cops say suicide, she says murder, but for little reason beyond an inability to accept that her son would’ve killed himself. As she blunders around the world in her grief, she discovers truths about her son that begin to point more toward a likely suicide than toward murder, but she continues. In a traditional thriller, she’d find out that he was, say, involved with mobsters or had witnessed some daring crime. Instead, she learns about his sex life, learns things that any parent might learn about an adult child, and the focus is much more on that realism, and that loss.
Louise weeps, Louise mopes, Louise comforts herself with platitudes. And many of the mysteries she uncovers are never explained. The bloodwork from the first autopsy of her son disappears, and the redone work finds he OD’d on over-the-counter drugs, and suffered a degenerative disease. The obvious question, in an international conspiracy thriller, is whether someone altered the test results. The possibility is never raised, much less addressed. The ultimate conspiracy is a shadowy confluence of global capitalistic forces that touches on a number of conspiracy theories about the AIDS epidemic, but never conclusively resolves them. Louise, as a lone woman, gets not much deeper into this mystery than I’d expect I, as a lone random man, could get. That’s a dedication to realism over a dedication to the special thrills of the thriller genre.
Her son was obsessed with the fact that JFK’s brain disappeared after his autopsy. Rather than making this central to the mystery, Mankell uses this as an emblem of the kind of world we live in—the kind where a secret of that magnitude, a theft in the face of such a brilliant historical spotlight, can go unsolved. It’s a symbol of the dark forces at work in the world that we will never understand, and Mankell delivers a more moving work by not imposing a pat, fictitious understanding on them.
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