Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well-known throughout the world for his police procedural novels, especially those about policeman Kurt Wallander. These novels typically involve gruesome murder, but are dominated more by the inner workings of Walander’s mind and his investigation of the clues than they are by the violence that pervades, say, one of the Kenzie-Gennaro stories by Dennis Lehane.
In The Return of the Dancing Master, TRotDM, we meet a new protagonist, Stefan Lindman. Lindman is a fairly young, though experienced, policeman who is greeted by two sets of bad news rather early in the story: he has a cancerous tumor in his throat that requires him to start chemotherapy in a few weeks, and Herbert Molin, his old partner and one-time mentor, now an elderly, retired policeman, has just been murdered in the remote area of northern Sweden to which Molin had retired.
Understandably beset by malaise, Lindman has trouble communicating with his girlfriend and doesn’t really want to talk to anyone about his condition or his possibly-impending demise. Instead, he feels like hopping on an airplane to the Spanish coast to drown himself in pity and alcohol in the company of strangers. However, as disconnected as he feels from reality, suffering what he thinks of as an old man’s disease while only 37, Lindman is roused by the tragedy of his partner’s murder, and ultimately decides to visit the scene of the crime during his medical leave, until it is time to start chemotherapy.
As everywhere, matters of protocol and jurisdiction must be followed in Swedish police procedures, and Lindman has every intention of doing so, but, since he is really just curious as a friend, he ends up at the actual murder site before contacting the local authorities. Lindman’s instincts as a detective kick in, and he notices a few things that had been overlooked by the local officers. This infraction against protocol earns the immediate resentment of the regional commander, but Lindman eventually finds an ally in the form of the highly effective, if somewhat oddly named, inspector Giuseppe Larsson of the Ostersund police force. Larsson is an intelligent man, and is grateful for the presence of Lindman, who not only continues to find evidence that had been overlooked, but serves as an excellent sounding board for theories. The two become de facto partners, while needing to hide this collaboration from higher authorities.
So, you ask, “What is unusual about this book? It seems to follow a relatively common formula…” I can assure you that the book is not common nor formulaic, however. It turns out that almost nothing and nobody, except Giuseppe, can be taken at face value here. The partner that Lindman thought he knew turns out to have had a hidden life, a life that terrified him, and which may finally have caught up with him. The killing itself is carried out by torturing Molin to death, and the circumstances are truly bizarre.
In the course of assisting the local police, unofficially, with their inquiries, Lindman uncovers facts about his own life and family that are profoundly disturbing, just as he uncovers facts about the existence of a neo-Nazi organization that is by no means a group of mere skinheads, but is a sophisticated and well-funded network.
In the Afterward, Mankell makes the usual disclaimers about TRotDM being a novel rather than a description of actual events and people, but he also says that, intermingled with the fiction, there is a set of truths, placed intentionally, for a purpose. These truths were as disturbing as they were illuminating. Although I have read extensively about the Second World War, I was completely unfamiliar with any close connection between some segments of Swedish society and the Nazi Party. However, this connection did exist, and more than a few Swedes served under Hitler as volunteers. In TRotDM, we learn about these wartime allegiances and how they may have survived to the present day. Of course, many Swedes also helped rescue Jews fleeing the Nazis, so this is no simplistic story, either in the book or in history itself.
The revelations about Fascism in Sweden come as a shock to Stefan Lindman. Able to work at the fringes of the investigation, he manages to employ unorthodox police procedure and to pursue possible tangents that end up becoming central to the story. Through Stefan’s eyes and ears we learn much about isolated Swedish villages, the varied terrain, the good-hearted people who live far from the bustle of cities, and the evil ones who might show up wherever a rock is overturned, be it at the side of a country road or in the confines of a modern business park. The book provides maps to help us follow all of Stefan's travels across Sweden.
The story is one of revenge, of the Holocaust, of wartime cruelty and long-delayed peace-time repercussions, of skin-heads and businessmen with the same agendas (if not tactics), of the repressed and suppressed memories of Swedish-Nazi collaboration, of how that collaboration may be continuing at this very moment, and of how this knowledge repels and horrifies the modern-day police investigators, who view Sweden as a peaceful country and who learned in school only of its careful neutrality during the war.
In the case of TRotDM, the policemen face a number of dilemmas, not the least of which is “What exactly the heck is going on? Are the murders connected? Is there a lone killer, a group of killers or several unrelated killers?” The revelations about complicity and duplicity take a good while to be completed, and we meet many well-drawn characters along the way. The young girl who works as a hotel clerk and waitress is a minor character, but she is very much alive. Life goes on, and sometimes stops, in small villages as it does everywhere else, regardless of what external circumstances may intrude.
Of particular interest, we are given entrée to the mind of a killer who was bent on taking revenge for war crimes against his Jewish family no matter what the cost– revenge he has been fixated on for more than 40 years. Nonetheless, this man is troubled by guilt about a number of things, though not the execution of his intended victim. This guilt causes the killer to stay in the area, at great risk to himself, to discover what forces may have been unleashed by his act of revenge.
Judging Herbert Molin’s killer is no easy task, even for his official pursuers, the policemen Stefan and Giuseppe, and even though the costs of his crime include many unintended consequences: a pleasant country constable ends up shooting someone dead and never really recovers from the experience, and other murders are committed. As the story unfolds, the killer must evade police dogs and police cordons, and a fascist group that is determined to trap and exterminate him.
Caught up in the crimes, Stefan is largely able to forget his fears of death and throat cancer while he works in tandem with Giuseppe to peel back every layer of the mystery, though, at night, when he is alone, the fears usually return.
Is it acceptable to take “an eye for an eye”? Clearly not in the view of Swedish law, which, like most developed nations, does not allow capital punishment. But is it acceptable under some circumstances? Stefan and Giuseppe must answer this question very specifically as the mysteries are wrapped up, just as they must acknowledge the hidden and shameful past that haunts a part of the Swedish soul, perhaps even with living ghosts. Author Mankell provides us with everything we might want in a novel, and adds extra elements that give the book an unusual resonance: suspense that ebbs and flows; human frailty and courage; stark terror; the remorse associated with unintended consequences of one's actions; historical fiction that exposes the (unfortunately, all too common) savage secrets of nominal wartime neutrality; several likely and unlikely comradeships; a backdrop of Swedish villages and beautiful lodges; and wonderful language.
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