Friday, August 22, 2008

The Dogs of Riga - Henning Mankell

1992 (Swedish); 2001 (English). 324 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B-.

    A life-raft floats up onto the Swedish shore. Inside are the bodies of two men, shot through the heart after being tortured and then dapperly dressed. There's no ID on either man, and no markings of the origin of the life-raft. With almost nothing to go on, Swedish detective Kurt Wallander tries to solve the case, which sudsequently leads him to Latvia, which is enduring the last throes of the Soviet Union.

.What's To Like...
    The emphasis here is on Wallander's (and several of his coworkers') plodding perseverence. No brilliancies; just dogged detective work. The plot unfolds beautifully as they try to determine the nationalities of the victims and the origin of the life-raft. It (naturally) quickly becomes clear that the two murders are simply a small part of a more complex plot.

.The Swedish ambiance is a welcome relief from that "bubbly buxom blonde girls skiing around as ABBA music plays in the background" scenario. Swedish winters are gray, cold, and like our Phoenix summers, seemingly never-ending. When Wallander travels to Riga, everything only gets grayer, colder, gloomier, poorer, and darker. Kewlness.

.Best of all, Wallander is a polar-opposite to a literary "Mary Sue". See here for Wikipedia's offering on Mary Sues. More about this in a bit.

.What's Not To Like...
    The plot unfolds nicely, but its resolution seems hurried and forced. For 200+ pages the sleuthing creeps along, then suddenly there's a 007 shoot-em-up, where a bunch of good guys get offed, while our hero amazingly gets neither a scratch nor caught. Kinda reminds me of The Last Samurai, where a couple hundred Japanese warriors get chopped into hamburger meat by machine guns, while Tom Cruise somehow handsomely survives.

.    While the Latvian ambiance is great, Mankell doesn't seem to have done much detailed research. For instance, when Wallander has to flee beyond Riga's city limits, all Mankell says is that he goes into various unnamed towns that Wallander never learns the names of. Sloppy, sloppy.

.    Finally, the translation (which Mankell had nothing nothing to do with) just sucks. There are spelling and grammar errors, and some clunky sentence structures. One wonders if this is a much better read in the native tongue.

.Mary Sue, Where Are You...
    If you're tired of too-perfect heroes, Kurt Wallander is for you. He's middle-aged, somewhat overweight, and average-looking. He drinks too much alcohol, even by Scnadinavian standards. He smokes too much and is addicted to lousy coffee. He's divorced, and frankly his ex is doing better without him. His father lays guilt trips on him, and thinks Wallander made a dumb mistake by joining the police force. So far, there's nothing to prove that wrong. His (grown) daughter barely tolerates him. He hates his job, but finds that he doesn't have any alternatives. His romantic charms are non-existent. In the previous book, he threw himself at the beautiful female lead, only to have her threaten to bring a sexual harassment charge against him. Here, he falls for a murdered-Latvian-detective's widow, and while she appreciates his solving the case and saving her life, she prefers to remain "just friends".

.    Nevertheless, I've enjoyed both Kurt Wallander books that I've read. I think Mankell is more concerned about giving you a gritty, true-to-life picture of Sweden (and in this case, Latvia as well), letting you know of some of the serious social issues there, and having you become friends with Wallander, his family, and his fellow detectives. Now if he'd just pay more attention to the plot itself...

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