[Notes on my infrequent posting: I moved in May from a rental to a little cabin off the grid. I have an iphone and very intermittent access to a laptop since my old one finally gave up the ghost during the move. I have much time for reading and writing reviews but more difficulty getting them online so please bear with me until the setup is streamlined. Thank you.]
Once again I have proved myself useless at theme blogging with a 4th of July book review of a Swedish detective novel…
So I read Faceless Killers a year or two back and what I remember most fondly about it was how bog-standard the police work was. There was no eureka moment that cracked the case, just patiently following leads, watching the case get cold and following them again while waiting for new information. The modern mystery, as accredited to Edgar Allan Poe, has always been more in love with bafflement and complexity than with the small wonders of realism and my respect to Henning Mankell for waiving the rules and letting the dying word “foreign” damn well mean “foreign” remained strong in memory long after I forgot how stilted the prose was. I suspect the same will be true of the second Wallander mystery, The Dogs of Riga, although being more outlandish in plot I did enjoy it a little less.
Mankell’s realist intent perfectly matched the contents of Faceless Killers but does a far more erstwhile job of it here. Mankell upped his ambition considerably between the books and as in 1992 the state of the Soviet Union was on everybody’s minds so he wrote about the vestiges of the regime hanging on for grim life in Latvia (Riga being the capital thereof, in case you didn’t know). Inside this book you will be treated to drug trafficking, surveillance, secret meetings, illegal border crossings and all the thrills and paranoia that come with “man on the run” plotlines. This would be great except for the fact that it crushes its hangdog, barely bilingual, “when did my life not suck?” protagonist under the weight of its global concerns.
A mission that simply must be carried out. Wallander tried to decide exactly what Upitis meant by that, but he knew in advance that he was wasting his time. His ability to grasp what was happening in Europe was practically non-existent: political goings-on had never had any place in his police officer’s world. He usually voted when elections came round, but haphazardly, without any committed interest. Changes which had no immediate effect on his own life left him unmoved.
“Chasing after monsters is hardly the kind of thing police officers get up to,” he said tentatively, trying to excuse his ignorance. “I investigate real crimes that have been committed by real people… The Latvian police have asked me to help them to track down Major Liepa’s murderer, primarily by trying to find out if there is any link with the two Latvian citizens whose bodies were washed ashore on the Swedish coast in a life-raft. And now, all of a sudden, you seem to be the ones asking me for help – is that right? If so, it must be possible to put the request more simply, without making long speeches about social problems I can’t understand.”
That quote functions as a handy summation of basic plot. The Dogs of Riga is divided into neat thirds. In the first act, two men tortured, executed and set adrift in a life-raft are discovered and we’re treated to by-the-book police work complicated by leaks to the press and the focus of the foreign ministry. There are aggressive reporters, cautious collaborations with other departments, stunning oversights, local colour and it all works beautifully with Wallander’s own established character. Kurt Wallander is a small-scale detective – dogged on the case, good at delegating and directing subordinates, but nowhere near the mental powerhouse of a Holmes or the physical fury of a Marlowe. He’s average, another way the series to this point has aligned itself with realism. It’s easy to sympathize with him and the multiple threads of the investigation are untangled in interesting ways. So far so good.
But then he gets called out to Riga and the earlier case is dropped as he investigates the murder of Major Liepa, the Latvian police officer sent to collaborate on the Swedish case. Momentum is lost in a sudden haze of secret meetings, dark suspicions and Wallander’s own confusion. It turns out Liepa was investigating corruption in the police force, ending with one of his superiors (gregarious Colonel Putnis or watchful Colonel Murniers?) and the hunt is on for proof. The men in the raft are shoved out of focus as mere preliminaries to the actual plot – if you were successfully invested in the former case this is somewhat irksome. And then the Major’s widow appears and we’re treated to a deluge of mawkish sentimentality:
He could think only of Baiba Liepa.
She was the person he trusted, she was the Major’s angel in a world where all the other angels had fallen.
Looking back, it seemed to Wallander that was the moment when he burnt his boats and began to accept that he was in love with Baiba Liepa. He had realised the love he now felt had its origins in another person’s need of him. He asked himself briefly if he had ever felt anything like it before.
There was a one-sided attraction in Faceless Killers too but I don’t remember it taking up near as much room respective to the plot. Instead of building on what came before this entire middle portion is just more setup, ushering out the previous setting, victims, investigators AND ancillaries; it is as if the first third of the novel were a mere prologue.
After his official visit concludes, Wallander crosses back into Riga illegally to save the widow and the mystery morphs into a thriller. Wallander sneaking around trying to escape detection livens up the stagnating plot even though I had already correctly guessed the culprit Liepa fingered (more on that below the spoiler line). So you sign up for a mystery (maybe with a little noir touch) and suddenly you realise you’re reading a thriller with clear roots in the spy story. It’s a crossover; it’s just a pity there had to be lag time in the middle.
But Mankell refuses to glamorize and the classic spy chase (Buchan-via-Hitchcock) where the hero outmaneuvers the baddies by fast talking and dumb luck is rendered curiously tarnished and impotent. Wallander sneaks into the labyrinthine police archives and has to relieve himself. His love for the widow comes to naught. The cold war is over. The spy novel is dead. In retrospect it’s almost meta, though I don’t think that was intended at the time. But I am prevented from admiring the effect, as I just don’t feel that average Joe Wallander was necessarily the right fit for the story (and the character himself clearly felt the same). Faceless Killers had a perfect tone and here we get a deliberate fish-out-of-water plot that doesn’t really satisfy.
I haven’t talked about the writing because like Faceless Killers I found the delivery very rigid, a bland conveyance of facts that was also repetitive with concern for Baiba Liepa (who was a symbol of Soviet suffering more than a character) and the metaphorical “dogs” on Wallander’s tail. If the Swedish is enlivened by the crackle of idioms, Laurie Thompson does not render any such material for English audiences.
So I was hooked in by the men on display in the life raft but they were a footnote at the end. As The Dogs of Riga heated up as a thriller it became a very lukewarm mystery. I have to get into spoilers to discuss The Dogs of Riga as a mystery (mostly just airing my disgruntlement) so here is a shiny picture of Henning Mankell for a finish:
READ NO FURTHER.
The big driving question of the book is which of the Colonels should Wallander trust? I made my choice early on and Mankell was no Agatha Christie to make me second-guess myself. The problem is that I chose my suspect about halfway through and Wallander did not cotton to the same man until the facts were spoon-fed to him. The choices: Putnis, who acts more personable but is skilled at “interrogation” (so he’s a torturer), is shown to have an opulent home (so he’s rich) and dismisses Liepa’s claims as those of an irrational or jealous man (so he’s a liar) vs. Murniers, whom the Latvian underground suspect (so we’re supposed to) and who keeps his cards close to the vest (so he’s a smart guy). This is just not hard to figure out. Then at the end of the story Putnis shows up claiming to be protecting Wallander from Murniers’ men all this time – it’s an obvious ploy! And what does Wallander do? Does he ask questions, stall, recollect any of the paranoia that’s gnawed at him ever since he arrived in Latvia? No, he unquestioningly trusts Putnis, proceeds to spill his guts like a complete maroon and is about to be gunned down like a dog (with the girl on his arm) when he is saved by the timely intervention of Murniers and his men. Finding Liepa’s evidence file in the police archives was admittedly clever of him – handing this trump card over to the first guy who makes nice? not so much. This was disappointing to me because frankly I like investigators to be a little more on the ball and even if Wallander was outgunned and outmaneuvered it would have been nice to see him cotton to the facts before the villain got his filibuster on. I am certain that Wallander should not play cards with anyone.