The Fifth Woman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Fifth Woman is the tenth of Henning Mankell’s police procedurals featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, the fourth to be published in English. In the prologue a woman learns that her mother has been murdered while traveling in Africa. A year passes, and an elderly bird-watcher falls into a ditch booby-trapped with sharpened bamboo spikes; a florist disappears and is later found strangled.

Detective Wallander immediately realizes that the two murders are the work of the same killer, but cannot find any similarity between the victims except that they were both somewhat reclusive. He eventually learns of the woman killed in Africa the previous year, and must come to understand her connection to the two murders.

Wallander is a tired cop, perpetually ill-fed and lacking sleep. He muses on the deterioration of Swedish society as the country becomes increasingly violent; a subplot involves the formation of “citizen militias” throughout Sweden. Wallander also faces his father’s death and struggles to maintain relationships with his grown daughter and long-distance girlfriend. In a parallel effort, Wallander briefly establishes a relationship with the murderer, striving for insight into the brutality that he feels is on the rise in Sweden.

Mankell skillfully conveys the tedium of police work as Wallander and his weary colleagues hold endless meetings, going over and over the case in search of an elusive break. There are no flashes of brilliance revealing the killer’s identity or intent, only painstaking examination and re-examination of what little information can be gleaned about the lonely victims and their deaths.