Henning Mankell, The Return of the Dancing Master (2000)

Hey, this is Wednesday again, the time where I try to cram all the writing I’d love to do but can’t in a single session! I’m slightly dazed by sleep deprivation and the summer heat, but I’m still going to tell you about the latest chilly thriller I “read” on audiobook lately. Because chilly is refreshing in this season, and the long days keep the bad guys lurking in the dark at bay.

More than a decade ago (or so I guess, that was pre-blog days, pre-children, pre-marriage, pre-historical maybe?), I went on a Mankell binge. And then I had too much of Wallander and I moved on. Nothing personal, but our ways parted somewhere near Ystad, Sweden.

Lately the choice in audiobooks at our neighborhood library focuses on best-sellers, and so I have come full circle back to Mankell, and I am quite content. There’s something especially comforting in going back to a writer you’ve enjoyed many years before (except when it goes awry, like when I tried to reconnect with Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta — well, I just remembered this bit, and that’s lucky, because it would have made me hesitant).

This thriller doesn’t feature Wallander but another inspector, Stefan Lindman, who happens to be on medical leave from his police job because he has a throat cancer. This part bothered me, because it felt like a poor excuse for the traditionally downbeat hero (so depressed that even his sidekick tries to cheer him up) who is free from procedural constraints, yet knowledgeable in police investigations and has not much to lose. Add a few marital woes, very little sleep and you’ve got quite a cliché. And it didn’t add anything to the story itself.

But still, Mankell knows how to plot like a master. Like a dancing master to be exact. Like a dancing master who kills an old man in an isolated house in the woods, in the middle of Swedish nowhere, with sadistic torture and the finishing touch of making the corpse of his victim leave bloody footsteps of a tango dance. If you’re not hooked right from the beginning, maybe thrillers are just not your cup of tea.

This one is a model of the genre, while managing to be unpredictable at all times. I won’t tell you in details but there are some places where I wished my commute was twice as long! The focus of Mankell is the rise of Neo-nazi in seemingly tranquil Sweden, and how the shadows of WWII still linger in present time. I realize that Stefan Lindman’s cancer may be a metaphor, but then it would be quite a heavy-handed one. I prefer to keep the memory of unsettling passages where the hero discovers that everything he held for certain proved fake. Beware of Swedish retirees, they aren’t the doting grannies and grandpas they seem to be.

Now, this book was first published in 2000, and sometimes it shows. Lindman and his police buddys are downright naive about the internet and computers, and they lose quite a lot of time that would have been solved in just one or two Google inquiries nowadays. The book is violent, but we have seen much worse since, and a lot more paranoid too. As far as extremist conspiracies go, we have gone a big step forward in recent years, and I nearly expected Mankell to go even darker and bleaker than he actually did.

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One thought on “Henning Mankell, The Return of the Dancing Master (2000)

  1. Somehow Mankell seems to have past me by and lately I’ve been feeling that I’ve had my fill of Scandinavian Crime fiction. Still, I may at some point return to that as you have to Mankell and then, with luck, I will remember this and try him out.

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