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Bookends: Two dead men in a life raft pose a prickly problem November 27, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Two dead men in a life raft pose a prickly problem

By Dan Davidson

May 28, 2014

– 840 words –

 

The Dogs of Riga: A Kurt Wallander MysteryThe Dogs of Riga

By Henning Mankell

Vintage

336 pages

$17.00

 

If the first Kurt Wallander mystery was pretty standard police procedural fare, except for the creation of Wallander himself, the second is rather a different animal. Wallander is in the midst of an existential crisis, still disturbed by the events of the double murder in the first book and morosely missing his mentor and confidant, Rydberg, who had died of cancer about a month earlier.

Rydberg had possessed a calm intellect and keen observational skills that Wallander had envied, though not in a negative way. He had simply counted on his comrade to provide the skills he felt he lacked, and now that Rydberg was gone he found himself approaching cases thinking about how his friend would deal with them.

The case of the well-dressed dead men in the life raft was one for the books. We know, from the opening chapter, how they ended up in the ocean near Ystad, but it is a complete puzzle to the policemen called out to deal with the case. Here they are, dressed in bespoke suits, shot to death after being tortured, and someone bothered to put their suit coats back on after killing them.

What clues there are, point to them being of Latvian origin. It’s 1991 in that bleak state. The police there identify the men and send an officer to Sweden to consult on the case. It goes nowhere, except that the raft is stolen from the evidence room, suggesting that there had been something in it. Drugs, most likely. Major Liepa goes back to Riga and is promptly murdered himself, setting in motion a chain of events that plays out like a combination of a detective story and a spy thriller.

Wallander is sent to Latvia, just crawling out from under the shadow of the Iron Curtain in that decade, to assist in the Liepa case, but it seems that no real progress can be made. He is contacted by a group of reformers, one of whom is Liepa’s widow. When one of the conspirators, a man named Uptis, is arrested for Liepa’s murder, Wallander knows it is not right, but is forced to leave the country.

Privately, he vows to go back, and with the help of the Latvian underground he is smuggled circuitously back into the country.

Wallander is pretty much out of his depth through most of this story, striving to make sense of the inexplicable, trying to approach the case the way Rydberg would have, and not doing a very good job of it.

While at home he has been trying to spend more quality time with his ailing father, a painter who is in the early stages of dementia. He has some success there, though it is mixed. He has given up hoping for any reconciliation with his wife, but is trying to strengthen his ties to his young adult daughter. He’s not feeling like he’s making much progress either professionally or personally, and has been thinking about chucking over his career and going to work for a security company.

The whole Riga situation just seems primed to drive him further over the edge. To compound his confusion, he finds himself falling in love with Baiba Lieba, and more that half the reason he goes back to Riga clandestinely is that attraction he feels for her. That, and the fact that she implored him to return, saying that she is certain only he can solve her husband’s murder.

The “dogs” of the title are the members of the Latvian police, particularly the two Colonels (the Latvians use military ranks in their force) with whom he is forced to work during his first visit to Riga. At that time it is as if the dogs are trying to throw him off the scent. When he returns it is as if the dogs are trying to get his scent.

This is a dark mystery, full of Scandinavian angst and Slavic melancholy, and could very well drive away readers looking for something less gloomy. It’s a credit to Mankell’s skill with a story, and to the translator (the award winning Laurie Thompson in this case) who put the story into English, that this does not happen.

In one of his interviews, Mankell said, “A good crime story is not only about a crime that is to be solved. It should be a psychological examination of the culture it reflects.”

That certainly seems to be what he did in these books.

Mankell wrote 10 Wallander mysteries between 1991 and 2009. I got onto them after seeing the English television versions in which Kenneth Branagh played the title role, backed up by Trevor Hiddleston, who has since become famous for portraying the character of Loki in the first Thor movie that Branagh directed, as well as in two films that followed.

 

-30-

 

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