The Fifth Woman, by Henning Mankell
This book starts with a gruesome tale. In an African convent, four nuns and a fifth, unidentified woman, are brutally murdered. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. The Fifth Woman is the sixth book in the series, and the fourth translated into English.
A year later in Sweden, Inspector Kurt Wallander, has just returned from a trip to Rome with his old and sick father who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease – the son giving his father the trip he has long wished for. Now he is back to work. He gets involved in the disappearance of Holger Eriksson, a retired industrialist and amateur poet, who has vanished from his estate. As well, there is a break-in at a florist shop, and a pool of blood.
And then the bodies start to show up. A body impaled on sharpened bamboo poles in a ditch. Another strangled and tied to a tree. Mankell quickly build suspense, and as readers we have known just how bad it is long before Kurt Wallander. Indeed, as readers we mostly are one step ahead of Wallander.
The veteran detective Wallander has very few clues to work with - a skull, a diary, and a photo of three men. It soon becomes evident that this is the grimmest and most challenging case of his career. This is a case that tests Wallander’s patience and trust in his own reasoning. He feels, more than what is usually the case, an intense need to understand. And as the murder count rises, Wallander and his team dig into the background of the victims and gradually uncover dark secrets. It becomes clear that the victims have themselves victimized women. Eventually even the link to the African murders is found. The investigators make tenuous connections, and slowly progress toward a horrifying solution.
The book is in many ways extremely violent. There is much malice, torture and suffering in The Fifth Woman. As a police procedural, the book gives what I consider to be a very realistic picture of a police investigation. One of Mankell’s very best, and one of the darkest of Swedish noir.
One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell
In this brilliant police procedural, which has also been filmed and was recently shown on TV in the US, three friends are killed in a secluded meadow on Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. They have a nice party, all the time being observed from a distance by the killer. And when they eventually fall asleep, the murderer walks up to them and kills them. Three shots, one in the head of each. Then he carefully buries them. In One Step Behind, Wallander confronts perhaps his most horrific case so far.
While we, as readers, know all this, Mankell’s modest hero Inspector Kurt Wallander does not know. All he knows, is that the three have been reported missing. However, as one of the missing girls send postcards home from various European countries, the case of the three missing people does not receive much attention.
Kurt Wallander’s focus is instead on a healthier life, as he has been diagnosed with diabetes. Then the relative peace in Ystad is completely shattered when his colleague Svedberg is murdered. There is very little to learn from the scene of the crime. Thus Wallander turns to the motive: Why was Svedberg murdered? It soon turns out that Svedberg had been hard at work during his vacation with the case of the three missing persons. Is there a connection between the two cases?
As well, during the investigation Wallander surprisingly learns that Svedberg had a mysterious girlfriend - Louise. No one has ever seen her, but Wallander eventually locates a picture of her, and also a picture of three young people in costume. These are the only leads. Then the bodies of the three missing people surface. And Wallander learns that a fourth friend should have been at the party, but was prevented by illness. He locates her twice, and the second time he does, she is killed during the night while Wallander is sleeping in the same house. So now Wallander must deal with a police killing and a serial killer who has killed four people.
Wallander's investigation is very persistent, occasionally even brilliant, and gradually uncovers useful information. And more murders follow while the exhausted Wallander and the under-staffed Ystad police struggles to prevent the next murder.
The mystery in One Step Behind is riveting. We really have the feeling that we solve the crime with the team at the Ystad police station. The writing is excellent. And the development of Wallander’s character in this book is very interesting as well. Simply a wonderful crime fiction book. A remarkable book you really ought to read!
Firewall, by Henning Mankell
Firewall was the sixth Kurt Wallander book to appear in English (the eight in Swedish). Again Mankell has written a crime novel that makes spending time with the glum police inspector from Ystad a thrilling experience.
Two seemingly random events start off the book: The first is the death of a computer expert in front of an ATM machine. The second is two teenage girls hitting and stabbing an elderly taxi driver to death.
The murder of the taxi driver is bizarre. Two young girls, 14 and 19 years old, claim they did it because they needed the more. 600 SKR, less than 100 dollars, was what they robbed him for. Interviewed, the girls are aggressive and unnerving. One of them refuses to talk unless the police fetch her chewing gum. Well, yeah, they killed the driver; but so what? Inspector Kurt Wallander is unable to understand why they did it. "It says right here," a colleague says, pointing to the report. "They needed the money."
To Wallander Sweden seems to have changed to the worse. As well, he himself suffers from diabetes and is nagged by his doctor about his drinking and eating habits. And, as usual, he has too much work and is lonely. So lonely, in fact, that with the aid of his daughter he seeks companionship via an online dating service.
Then one of the strange girls escapes from prison, and is found electrocuted at an electricity station. Gradually Wallander, with the assistance of a young computer geek, uncovers a cyber-terrorist plot that has penetrated the Firewalls of the international banking system, and is aimed at destroying the global financial system. And, slowly Wallander becomes convinced that the incidents are all connected. But finding and making sense of the connections is difficult and requires lots of stubborn police work. And, as usual, the police procedural aspect of the investigation is extremely well described and very interesting. The team gathers information, analyzes, and gradually starts to understand.
Firewall is a new great Henning Mankell book. I love the writing and the suspense, even though I felt the plot perhaps was a little too big this time. But the book still works and delivers excitement and thrills. Mankell is, without doubt, among the finest mystery writers in the world.
Before the Frost, by Henning Mankell
This book introduces Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda as a main character. Many authors have tried similar solutions to the problem of continuation and failed miserably. Mankell, on the other hand, makes it seem very easy and succeeds. In this crime fiction book, often labeled as a "Linda Wallander mystery", but really a Kurt and Linda Wallander book, Linda starts working at the Ystad police and is – partly by courtesy of Kurt – let into the picture. And to make it very natural, Mankell lets Before the Frost deal with growing up, relations between fathers and daughters, and such. Smart moves by Mankell. Impressive, actually.
As is common in Mankell’s books, this novel too opens with violence – two acts of violence in this case. And, of course, seemingly unrelated. The first is a massacre in Guyana. The second is a pretty sadistic killing of swans on a lake in Sweden. Meanwhile, Linda has graduated from police college, shares the moody, sometimes over-drinking Kurt’s flat, and hangs out while waiting to start her new job with the Ystad police with Martinsson as her mentor. So Kurt allows her to tag along on one of his investigations. She is pretty frustrated, however, as one of her friends seem to have disappeared. So, on the side, and using somewhat unorthodox methods, Linda starts investigating the disappearance.
The plot is very exciting, to a large extent due to Mankell’s excellent writing, and it soon becomes clear that we are dealing with religious fanaticism, ritual murder, sacrifice, and such. Mankell shows how religion can be a most powerful tool for manipulating people.
Before the Frost is good – not among the best in the series, and not the worst. It is exciting and very entertaining. The plot is a little too far-fetched for my taste, but I still enjoyed the book a lot.
Praise for Henning Mankell:
“Mankell is a master of the traditional arts of the crime novel, narrative pacing and suspense.” --Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An arresting story by an arresting writer … [Mankell] understands and probes the underside of everyday living – in an elegant and artful way.… He is able to look loneliness square in the eye. The result is writing that walks a line between ephemeral and everlasting.” –The Washington Post
“Powerful…. Thoroughly engaging…. Amazingly human characters…. It’s a testament to Mankell’s skill with plot that the story gets more and more urgent as he transforms a series of small mysteries into a much larger thriller…. Mankell [is] a master storyteller.” –San Francisco Chronicle