I am a big mystery fan and especially enjoy those set in a different country. This month, I’m covering three books, one written in Sweden, another in England and the third in Korea. While the first two are traditional mystery stories — someone goes missing, someone is killed and two have fear of dementia in common and the third is a very different and more subtle kind of mystery, all will leave you pondering the unknown.
Henning Mankell’s “The Troubled Man”, published by Alfred A. Knopf, is the last of his series about Swedish policeman, Kurt Wallender, a man who has a history of brilliantly solving crimes. Mankell was writing his novels long before Steig Larsson began his series of novels, and if you loved those, you will love Mankell’s. Wallender is independent, not afraid to flaunt the rules especially now that he is 60 and about ready to retire. He has moved to a small house in the country, gotten a dog and has set himself up for a long and peaceful retirement and a quieter work life before he takes that step.
When his daughter’s boyfriend’s father disappears and his mother is found murdered, Wallender becomes involved in the case which involves cold war espionage and modern spying and also has to say much about long-term friendships. He solves the case brilliantly.
In contrast, however, he becomes very concerned about his ability to handle his own life as a number of incidents occur. The first is when he cleans his gun at home and then decides to go out to get a late supper and accidentally leaves his gun in the restaurant. He has no explanation or memory of even taking the gun. Soon after, he leaves the stove burners on in his house and starts a fire which almost burns down his home.
Soon other more ominous events take place. These situations alarm him and his daughter, a police officer who lives nearby. As a reader, I kept hoping for some explanation like a reaction to medicine, but as the epilogue proves, sometimes there is no answer but the truth.
“The Shadows in the Street” by Susan Hill, published by Vintage also tells a story around a recurring detective, in this case Simon Serrailler, part of the Special Incident Flying Taskforce. Simon lives in a small city in England surrounded by members of his family, including his twin sister, Cat, who is a doctor recovering from the death of her husband a year before.
The setting is filled with characters from this Cathedral town, which adds a lot of atmosphere and also contrasts with the story of young women who are prostituting themselves in order to take care of their kids and there are references to human trafficking.
As some of these women are found murdered, Simon and other detectives are soon deeply enmeshed among witnesses and suspects and as the author says, sometimes “evil is hidden in the robe of righteousness”. Although this is the only book in the series I’ve read, these characters are interesting enough in themselves and in their circumstances that you, like me, will probably want to catch up with the previous four novels.
“Please Look After Mom” by Kyung Sook Shin, published by Alfred A. Knopf is not a mystery in the traditional sense. Instead, it looks at the mystery of how sometimes our closest relationships are full of unknowns.
Set in modern Korea, it the story of a country woman who is accidentally left at a subway station in Seoul as she and her husband come into the city to visit one of their grown children. When the husband realizes his wife did not follow him onto the train, he immediately goes back to the station, but his wife is nowhere to be found. Her children mount a campaign to find her with each grown child using his or her abilities and resources, but as they do, they all realize how little they understand who their mother really is.
The voices in the book are that of one son, one daughter, the husband and the mother. Forced to review their relationships, the story is piercingly honest, as each family member realizes their neglect and lack of appreciation of what their mother, an illiterate country woman, did for them. Some scenes, as when the mother visits her firstborn son who is living in a storeroom of the office where he works and she chooses to sleep in the drafty spot so her son will be warmer, to her daughter’s admission of benign neglect as she admits to herself the many instances of not calling as often as she feels now she should and always being the first one to say goodbye. The husband comes to realize his many failings in their relationship and his subtle cruelties to his wife. Perhaps the most touching chapter is the mother’s reminiscences when the reader understands that even this poor woman who scrimped and made do her entire life still felt guilt for herself for her failings and even managed a bit of a secret life. Because the family was extremely poor and living in the country when the children were young and now many of the children live in Seoul and so the parents are drawn there, the novel also shows the reader how much Korea has changed in one generation. More importantly it shows how one person can change from an extremely competent caretaker to one who needs care herself in a relatively short time.
These three mysteries are very different from each other — one which focuses almost completely on the detective himself, another that looks at relationships rather than the detective himself and one which is about the mystery of family relationships — but all stay true to the authors’ understanding of how we relate to each other.