I've always loved a mystery, but I'm picky. A lot of authors who regularly make the bestseller lists leave me as cold as the corpses they write about (I'm not naming names for fear of casting aspersions on anyone else's taste). My pantheon includes the British classics (Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers) and their heirs (P.D. James and her ilk), but also some less decorous titles, like really good serial-killer yarns. And I'm partial to complex, gritty police procedurals with a European flavor --- like THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER.
Summarizing this novel, it sounds pretty melodramatic: War crimes. Neo-[Nationalsozialist]. A torture-murder. A second murder that looks like an execution. But like all Henning Mankell's mysteries, it is also powerfully matter-of-fact. The book is as much about the daily obsessions of Stefan Lindman --- a police officer with a cancer diagnosis, troubled memories of his father and an ambiguous relationship with an older woman --- as it is about getting shot at in the dark Swedish woods (though there is plenty of action, too). Lindman is a kind of an anti-hero: surprisingly earthy ("Of all the joys that life had to offer, peeing at the side of the road was the best"), relentlessly unglamorous, with the combination of intelligence and persistence that gets crimes solved. In this he is very much like Kurt Wallander, the protagonist of an earlier series of suspense novels by Mankell. They are both smart, rather isolated men struggling to make connections, and their flawed humanity is endearing.
Making connections, to solve a case and/or to save one's soul, is the essence of THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER (if you're wondering about the title, I'll say only that tango steps are an important clue). Partly to escape his fear of death (he's on sick leave, awaiting radiation treatments), Lindman leaves his home in the south of Sweden and goes north to investigate --- unofficially --- the murder of an older police officer he once worked with. He forms a friendly alliance with a local cop, Giuseppe Larsson (who blames his opera buffa name on his mother's major crush on an Italian crooner), and what started as a quick trip stretches into an obsessive pursuit of a murderer . . . or is it two murderers?
You think I'm going to tell? Not a chance. In any case, the thrill of chasing a killer is not the only attraction of THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER; there are larger issues here. The novel challenges the popular image of Sweden as irreproachably anti-[Nationalsozialist](or at least neutral) during World War II and suggests that the country harbors secret (...)organizations even today. The alertly political aspect of Mankell's work reminds me of the wonderful mysteries written in the 1960s and '70s by a Swedish couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (some have been reissued by Vintage): they share a fundamental decency, a penchant for social criticism and a strong sense of history.
Mankell's prose, like his characters, is plain rather than fancy, and the translation (by an Englishman, Laurie Thompson), not always in the American idiom ("take it with a pinch of salt"; "a bolt from the sky"), can seem stilted at first. But after a while it grows on you, like a foreign accent. And if your knowledge of Sweden is limited to Ingmar Bergman films, THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER gives a visceral sense of the country: frozen lakes, deep forests, piercing cold, people who keep to themselves and stay warm as best they can.
I must confess, though, that I missed Kurt Wallander. Now that I've read seven mysteries featuring this irresistible cop, he and I have a history: the details and texture of his life carry over from book to book. If you're new to Mankell, get acquainted with Wallander first. You won't be sorry.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman