(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Post-World War II Sweden has long been heralded by the cognoscenti as a model of democratic progress. In the left-leaning 1960's and 1970's its quasi-socialist, equalitarian reforms were celebrated in countless press reports conferring upon Sweden near utopian status for its minuscule crime rates (in comparison to other Western democracies); its cradle-to-the-grave health care and welfare system; its tolerant sexual mores (on American television, at any rate, where beautiful, muscular Swedish girls seemed to view uninhibited sex as a sort of hygienic exercise); and its progressive views on capital punishment, gun control, and other issues. That image has been sullied a bit in recent years. The bureaucratic nanny-state does not seem quite so glamorous anymore, and Sweden's crime rates (not to mention its suicide rates) have begun to rise. Enter Henning Mankell, whose enormous international popularity as a writer of crime fiction may have something to do with his unflinching diagnoses of the Swedish reality as opposed to the mythical image.

Inaugurated in the early 1990's, Mankell's Kurt Wallander series established its author as one of the finest living Swedish writers and its protagonist as among the most memorable in modern crime fiction. Now in his mid-fifties, Mankell has introduced a protagonist who may return in future installments of a new series. Stefan Lindman, in The Return of the Dancing Master, is in many ways a younger version of Wallander. Both are small-town Swedish cops: Wallander in Ystad, at the southern tip of the country; Lindman, in Boras, along the southwest coast. Wallander is divorced and desperately lonely, has a guilty relationship with an aging father who disapproves of his career, and has a troubled rapport with a daughter who lives in Stockholm. Lindman, at thirty-six, has lost both his parents and maintains a tenuous relationship with his older lover, Elena.

Both detectives suffer health problems: Wallander drinks too much and suffers from diabetes; Lindman, in the opening pages of the new book, learns that he has a cancerous lump on his tongue. Both men brood incessantly about the lurking possibility of death, though neither is particularly religious. Finally, while neither Wallander nor Lindman can be described as highly intelligent—no startlingly Holmesian deductions here—they are both intensely dedicated and painstaking policemen. It is their frailties, conjoined with their honesty and perseverance, that make them such emotionally attractive characters.

Mankell's writing is praiseworthy on a number of levels. His terse, almost minimalistic prose (though it can, at moments, seems merely plodding) is often charged with a repressed, threatening energy. Like the snow-swept Swedish landscape, the writing is stark but quietly captivating. His characters, even the minor ones, are memorable, often marked by some subtle eccentricity of speech or manner suggestive of hidden psychic wounds or trauma.

Perhaps most compelling are Mankell's crime scenes. Among current writers of crime fiction, few can equal Mankell's eye for the bizarre but psychologically grounded murder. Such scenes are constructed not simply to shock but also to provide a multilayered and symbolic view of the mind of the killer. Rarely in the history of the murder mystery have crime scenes “spoken” with such mute eloquence.

In Mankell's sixth Wallander novel, Femte kvinnan (2000; The Fifth Woman, 2000), for example, a serial killer constructs each of her killings as a cryptic, artfully contrived testimony to the sexual abuse that has maimed her, the first involving the murder of an elderly and seemingly harmless birdwatcher, who is impaled in a ditch on a bed of bamboo staves.

Equally unforgettable is the crime scene in The Return of the Dancing Master. Here, another elderly recluse, Herbert Molin, is assaulted at dawn in his remote forest home near Sveg, in north-central Sweden. His unseen attacker lobs teargas through his windows, driving the terrified Molin out of the house, whereupon he is run down in the woods and beaten slowly to death. When the police arrive on the scene, what they find is at once gruesome and mockingly inscrutable. Molin's corpse “wasn’t really a man at all, just a bloody bundle. The face had been scraped away, the feet were no more than blood-soaked lumps, and his back had been beaten so badly that the bones were exposed.” Entering the house, they find among other things a strange pattern of bloody footprints and, in the bedroom, a life-size, fully inflated female doll. Puzzling over the footprints, Giuseppe Larsson, the lead detective from nearby Ostersund, realizes that their pattern is familiar—they are tango steps. Larsson thinks at first that the doll “was some kind of sex toy used by the lonely Molin, but the doll had no orifices. The loops on its feet suggested that it was used as a dancing partner.” Other than these cryptic indicators, the police are left utterly perplexed about the identity of the killer or the...

(The entire section is 2058 words.)