Depths

By Henning Mankell
Vintage Books; €9.85

IT IS October, 1914. A naval destroyer emerges from the Stockholm archipelago carrying an engineer charged with making depth soundings.

Lars Tobiassson-Svartman is obsessed with measurement and precision, traits reflected in his impersonal relationship with his hidebound wife. During the voyage, Lars rows out to a barren reef, which is presumed to be uninhabited. There he discovers a young woman living wild, surviving on fish. Despite her feral appearance – or because of it – the cold engineer is moved. Although his mission is a success and he returns with his ship to Gothenburg, he is haunted by his strange encounter and returns.

So far so good, but as a fan of Mankell’s lugubrious Nordic detective, Kurt Wallander, I was disappointed to learn that Depths does not feature him. Instead, this tale is set in the Stockholm archipelago at the outbreak of World War I. The usual violence is here; Lars, surprisingly, is a compulsive liar and a serial murderer.

His background in bourgeois Stockholm is deftly drawn. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a minor aristocrat, Lars is tormented by memories of childhood abuse and unable to connect with other people. He finds solace in his battery of optical and navigational instruments. His job as a hydrographic survey engineer is to conduct depth soundings and calculate, for example, the amount of time it would take for a dead body to reach the bottom of the sea.

His encounter with Sara Fredrika stirs a powerful emotion in this buttoned-up man. Smitten, he returns under cover of dark, night after night. The more he sees of Sara, the more convinced he becomes that his secret has been discovered. He kills those he suspects of spying on him. As in the Wallander series, the atmosphere is icily bleak and Mankell raises the topics of political morality, justice and democracy, all of which make for a powerful tale.


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