In approximately 99.9% of mystery novels, a murder occurs—or, perhaps, several murders. But most mysteries aren’t really about death. The fact that a human being is gone forever, the impact that a death has on the survivors, is often downplayed in favor of the whodunit puzzle. (In many crime novels, particularly on the cozy end of the spectrum, the victim is shown to be a horrible person, to lessen our guilt about consuming death as entertainment.)
A couple of years ago, William Kent Krueger won every major mystery award (deservedly so, in my opinion) for Ordinary Grace, a novel that dealt frankly and openly with the grief and loss that follow in the aftermath of a sudden, violent death. The affable Krueger is well known for being “Minnesota nice,” and he’s a churchgoing man as well, so Ordinary Grace managed to be somehow uplifting and faith-affirming despite its sober themes. Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes is like a photo-negative version of Ordinary Grace—instead of young protagonist Frank Drum, we have the retired doctor Fredrik Welin; instead of a supportive, loving family and community, we have a man living alone on a remote island, with only two aged pets keeping him company. Most importantly, the book is suffused with a peculiarly Scandinavian fatalism. If Krueger is Frank Capra in this scenario, Mankell is unabashedly Bergman.
While Mankell is best known for his Wallander series of mysteries, Italian Shoes is a work of straight fiction. There’s death—lots of it!—but it’s all natural, or in one case, self-inflicted. If it sounds depressing, it’s not, because this is a gorgeously-written book (the excellent translation is by Laurie Thompson). It’s harshly beautiful, like a fire-scarred cypress growing out of a craggy rock.
We first meet Welin on his solitary island, which he escaped to after some unnamed tragedy in his past. The only person he sees regularly is the postman who comes three days a week; naturally, Welin despises him. He spends his time writing pointless entries in a logbook and taking a daily jump into the freezing water, a way of proving that he’s still alive. At night, he reads: “A book about how the potato came to Sweden. I had read it several times before. Presumably because it didn’t raise any questions. I could turn page after page and know that I wasn’t going to be faced with something unpleasant and unexpected.”
One day, the fortress of solitude is breached by an ex-lover, Harriet, who shows up on the island on a frigid January day. He hasn’t seen her since he abandoned her nearly 40 years ago. Now she’s dying, and her last wish is that Welin take her to see a certain spot in the north of Sweden that he’d mentioned once before. Thus begins an eventful road trip that takes Welin off his island and far out of his comfort zone; he meets other significant people on the way, and when he eventually returns home, everything has changed. There are moments of searing melancholy and moments of great joy.
“I could still remember the first time I watched a person die,” says Welin (this is the rare Mankell book that is written in first person). “It happened without any movement, in complete silence. The big leap was so tiny. In a split second the living person joined the dead. I recall thinking: This person who is now dead is someone who has in reality never existed. Death wipes out everything that has lived. Death leaves no trace…”
Mankell himself joined the dead last year, but his books will live on for a long time to come. Italian Shoes is a masterwork, a poignant story that serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the unbreakable bonds that join people together even after one of them has passed into another realm.
This review is dedicated to the memory of my friend Janet Appel, whose memorial service will be held today.