By Thane Peterson Much to my delight, a copy of the latest crime novel by the Swedish writer Henning Mankell showed up in my mail on Saturday. I had forgotten that I had advance-ordered a copy of The Return of the Dancing Master (The New Press, $24.95) from Amazon.com months ago. I immediately dropped everything and devoured the book.
If you're into crime novels, you'll find Mankell's books irresistible. The author, who is 56 and has written dozens of books, is a master at constructing gripping, intricately plotted police procedurals with a strong dose of social commentary. More than 20 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide, mainly in Continental Europe, where he's hugely popular. In fact, if you want to understand Europe's deeply pessimistic social and political outlook, I can think of few better ways than to read one of Mankell's books. The contrast with quintessentially American crime writers like, say, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard is striking (see BW Online, 1/07/04, "Elmore Leonard: In Short, a Genius"). For all the blighted lives and bleak futures in their books, the Americans seem almost sunny next to Mankell.
NEW HERO, SAME MOLD. In Mankell's books, the world has gone thoroughly rotten. The little northern Swedish towns in which his stories are set belie Sweden's image as peaceful, affluent, and boringly homogeneous. The police are underfunded, and under siege by vicious criminals who often have frightening international ties. Sweden's social fabric is riven by corruption, angst, and immigrants, whom many fear are undermining the way of life.
Just beneath the surface of society, fascist conspirators plot to commit murder and mayhem. The White Lioness, which came out in the U.S. in 1998, is a typical Mankell story: The plot begins when a small-town Swedish housewife is mysteriously murdered by what turns out to be an ex-KGB agent with ties to South Africa's apartheid regime.
Personal relationships in Mankell's books are equally troubled. There are no consolations in the life of Detective Kurt Wallander, Mankell's best-known character, like the loving and supportive relationship that McBain's Detective Steve Carella has with his wife, Teddy. The middle-aged Wallander is a brilliant detective, but he is also endlessly plagued by doubt and self-loathing. His wife has left him, he's estranged from their only child, an adult daughter, and his relations with the women in his life are rocky, to say the least. His drunken rages, reluctance to commit, and constant suspicions that his girlfriends are unfaithful compound the difficulties of an already bleak emotional life.
The Return of the Dancing Master is something of a departure for Mankell because he uses it to introduce a new hero. Like Wallander, Stefan Lindman is a small-town policeman. At 40, he's younger and somewhat less filled with rage, but in the end he's not very different.
As the story begins, Lindman has just been diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. Reeling, he tries to distract himself during the days before his treatment begins by investigating the brutal murder of a retired colleague. Throughout the investigation, Lindman is plagued by nightmares, pain, and dizziness, as well as premonitions of death. Like Wallander, he finds emotional constancy difficult. He rewards his girlfriend's supportiveness by constantly forgetting to phone her -- and speaking in monosyllables when he does.
WHIPPING UP SYMPATHY. So what's the appeal of these dark tales? Partly, as with a book like Silence of the Lambs, it's the sheer brutal imaginativeness of the crimes. Murder is rarely less than diabolical in Mankell's books. For instance, in Sidetracked, which came out in English in 1999, a retired Swedish Justice Minister is axed to death and scalped and revealed to have been a corrupt sexual sadist. In the new book, Lindman's retired colleague was slowly whipped to death in the snowy yard of his isolated country house. Bloody footprints in his living room indicate that -- before or after death -- he had somehow been made to dance the fox-trot.
For Europeans, I suspect that a big part of the appeal is also Mankell's left-of-center political slant and his deep cynicism about politics. Europeans, in my experience, are far less credulous than Americans. Americans like to think they're skeptical of politicians, but most have a touching faith in quick fixes and new beginnings (witness the current Iraq policy). Despite September 11, Americans tend to see evil as external and distant. Europeans, who have endured numerous wars on their home turf, see it as nearby and internal to modern society. In Mankell's version, the threat of a fascist takeover of democratic institutions always lurks in the background.
Mankel's plots are fascinating partly because things are so rarely what they seem. Higher political authority is often corrupt, and even friends, colleagues, and family cannot necessarily be trusted. The brutal murder in The Return of the Dancing Master, for instance, turns out to involve Nazi and neo-Nazi scheming, some of which goes back to the early days of World War II and involves both Lindman's late father and his murdered ex-colleague. In Mankell's remorseless weighing of good vs. evil, the murderer who slowly whipped an elderly policeman to death ends up as a mildly sympathetic character.
TWISTED IMAGES. Redemption in Mankell's stories is bleakly existential. His detectives are admirable because in the warped society in which they live and work, they just keep plugging away, trying to do the right thing. For all their dyspepsia, Wallander and Lindman are good men, who bravely risk their lives in gunfights with better-armed criminals.
In contrast to American detectives like, say, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, they're not particularly macho, and they're fairly scrupulous about trying to obey Sweden's many rules protecting criminal suspects. You can't imagine either of them staring down the barrel of a .44 Magnum and growling, "Make my day."
Ultimately, of course, Mankell's version of Swedish society is no less cartoonish than the Dirty Harry version of America. At their worst, as in The White Lioness, the plots are as wildly improbable as in any adventure novel. At his best, however, Mankell probes some of Europeans' deepest fears and anxieties. The looking glass he holds up to society is a distorted, fun-house mirror, but many Europeans see glimpses of political and social reality in it. I suspect that many Americans who read the books will have a similar experience. It isn't a pretty sight. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online