The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

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The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The sixth book in Mankell's Kurt Wallander series is pure police procedural but written with style and panache. It's a substantial, but worthwhile read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: September 2002
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099445212

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In Africa, four nuns and a Swedish woman who was staying with them are savagely murdered. When the visitor's daughter hears about this she gives herself a year to grieve and then sets about extracting her revenge.

Inspector Kurt Wallander has just returned from a holiday in Rome with his father and he's full of plans for the future. He wants to cement his relationship with Baiba, buy a house and get a dog. He just hopes that the autumn and winter will give him time to do all this. It's not to be though. The body of an elderly bird-watcher is discovered impaled on a trap of bamboo spikes and it's obvious that the murder has been meticulously planned. It's not long before another body is found, with an equally gruesome end and the same planning. Wallander's private life has to take a back seat whilst he and his team struggle to find the murderer.

Henning Mankell's Wallander novels just get better and better. I read them out of sequence, which isn't a problem as each is capable of being read as a stand-alone novel, but they are better read as part of a series. I started at number three - The White Lioness - which I thought was good. It was certainly better than the second - The Dogs of Riga, which couldn't make up its mind whether it was a police procedural novel or an international thriller. The first, Faceless Killers, showed a great deal of promise, but it's this sixth novel in the series where Mankell and Wallander come into their own.

Unusually, the reader knows more than the police, throughout the book. We are always one step ahead, watching the police struggling to catch up. We know that the killer is a woman and we can guess at her motivation, but the physical strength required to set up and carry through the killings initially suggests that the murderer is a man or a man working with a woman. If you like police procedural novels then you'll find this book a delight. There are no coincidences which suddenly offer a solution, leaps of imagination or strokes of luck. The book is about the dogged slog of police work, about the red herrings which distract the team and the patient accumulation of evidence and elimination of suspects. Describing the book like that makes it sound dull and dry, but it's certainly not that. There's a particularly satisfying ending with the various threads neatly tied off.

As one killing follows another and the police appear powerless to catch the killer, vigilante groups form. One woman takes justice into her own hands and metes out punishment to men she feels have abused women. In their turn men begin wreaking vengeance on anyone they suspect might be breaking the law - with frightening consequences for the innocent people caught up in the situation. Instead of concentrating on catching the killer, Wallander is forced to divert his attention and track down the leaders of the vigilantes. It's frighteningly easy to see how this situation can come about and how fragile is the status quo of society, not just in Sweden, but everywhere. Uncertainty about the way that Sweden is going adds to Wallander's problems. I found this aspect of the book very thought-provoking, particularly when another thread leads Wallander to investigate men who have been paid mercenaries in Africa.

Wallander always puts me in mind of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. There's the same depressive personality, love of music and lack of personal care, but throughout the series I've felt that he has more depth than Morse, although he's not quite as loveable. Wallander is more driven, more single-minded, ideally suited to the bleak landscape and climate of Ystad, a small town near Malmö in the southern area of Skåne. In earlier books I've found that the female characters are less-rounded, less believable, but this time Mankell triumphs with Ann-Britt Höglund, a female detective with child-care problems and a rather unusual marriage. On the other hand, I was never entirely convinced by the killer, despite the fact that she dominated the book.

The violence in the book is chilling and made more so by the fact that it's meticulously planned and executed without passion. There are descriptions of what happens to the men are stark and horrifying, but there's nothing gratuitous and I certainly didn't lose any sleep over it. There's very little in the way of sexual references in the book and I'd regard it as a book which could be enjoyed by any adult with an interest in the genre.

The translation of the book has been done by Steven T Murray, who has also translated two other Wallander novels into English. I'm unable to compare it with the work in the original Swedish, but the text reads well and has none of the clunkiness which translations so often have.

If you're a fan of Kurt Wallander or Henning Mankell, or you'd like to find out more about them, you might like to have a look at this website where you'll find information about Mankell, Wallander and the books. You m ight also enjoy The Swimmer by Joakim Zander.

The book is recommended both to buy and to borrow.

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Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Novels in Chronological Order

Booklists.jpg The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell is in the Top Ten Crime Novels.


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