The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

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The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An early Kurt Wallander novel - part police procedural and part international thriller - which is cautiously recommended, particularly as a thriller but it's not one of the best in the series
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 340 Date: September 2002
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 1860469590

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I share a taste for detective fiction with the local librarian. "Have you tried Henning Mankell?" she asked. "His Kurt Wallander makes Inspector Morse look positively optimistic!"

I couldn't wait.

An unmarked life raft is washed up on Wallander's local beach in Sweden. On it are the bodies of two men. They've been tortured, shot and then the jackets of their expensive suits have been put back onto the bodies. When it's discovered that the victims have come from across the Baltic Sea it should be an open-and-shut case but Inspector Wallander finds himself travelling to Latvia to help the local police in Riga. Once there he can't let go until he gets the answers he needs.

The book begins as a pure police-procedural novel. This is where we follow the police as they accumulate evidence through observation, elimination and the use of forensic science. It's about reasoning and deduction and this is my preferred form of novel. Unfortunately, once it became evident that the crime was committed in Latvia and Sweden had simply been the dumping place for the bodies the novel had a complete change of identity and became an international thriller. This isn't my preferred form of novel at all. Both parts are well done, but it's rather like the couple you think should never have got married despite being perfectly decent people in their own right. It put me in mind of Peter Hoeg's "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" where there was a similar change of direction, but it was nowhere near as well done.

As a police-procedural novel the story is good if not exceptional. The fact that you know why the bodies ended up where they did from the very beginning does reduce the tension. It's all very neat and tidy, but is really only setting the scene for the second part. As an international thriller the book worked very well. Wallander finds himself in a completely alien environment where he doesn't speak the language and doesn't know who he can trust until the final few pages. The tension is palpable. I was reading this part in the middle of a sleepless night and I had to get up and make myself a cup of tea just to break the mood.

This book was first published in 1992 when the political situation in Latvia was still fluid, but the events which took place in the book pre-date even those turbulent times. We return to a time when Latvia was ruled from Moscow. Police surveillance is standard practice and the populace generally lives in fear. Poverty is endemic. Police corruption is the norm. Mankell had assistance from within the Latvian police on how the force worked and the result is eerily compelling. The characters of the Latvian policemen came over particularly strongly in contrast to the Swedish police who were little more than a shadowy presence. An impressive character was Baiba Liepa, the widow of a Latvian policeman. One thing I would have appreciated was a map - nothing complicated, but I think I lost something of the story because of my lack of familiarity with the Baltic.

Kurt Wallander himself is less fully-formed than in later novels. There are hints of Morse in there - the messy and unsatisfactory private life, the love of music and the health concerns. He does become more rounded as the series progresses.

The author, Henning Mankell, is Swedish and his eight novels in the Kurt Wallander series have been translated into several languages. This book is the second in the series and whilst it can be read as a stand-alone novel there is a benefit to reading the books in order.

I had a technical concern with this book. Sometimes the text was rather clunky and I did wonder if this was down to the translator, but this seemed unlikely as Laurie Thompson also translated The White Lioness which I thoroughly enjoyed. Looking at the text in more detail I came to the conclusion that the editing or typesetting had been careless. Sentences break in the middle of a line and continue on the next. Words sprout hyphens in their middle for no appar-ent reason. It didn't spoil my enjoyment of the novel but it was a minor annoyance - when I read a book I don't want to even notice the text.

The book is cautiously recommended if you're happy about it being a book of two halves.

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Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Novels in Chronological Order


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