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RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER
by Henning Mankell
Harvill Press, October 2003
406 pages
14.99 GBP
ISBN: 1843430584


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Henning Mankell was born in Sweden but now spends his time in both Sweden and Mozambique - a combination of locations that could strike one as incongruous. He is a theatre director but one can only wonder, in the face of his tremendous popularity as a novelist ,if he is still doing much directing. One would assume that his police detective, Kurt Wallender, would have directed Mankell's path away from the theatre. But then, Kurt Wallender is not a traffic cop.

Mankell is the author of The Dogs Of Riga, Faceless Killers, The White Lioness, Sidetracked, The Fifth Woman and One Step Behind amongst others. Sidetracked garnered for him the CWA Silver Dagger Award - a prize not lightly bestowed.

Whilst the author is best known for his Kurt Wallender series, The Return Of The Dancing Master does not involve the Wallender series' troubled protagonist but instead, a policeman with differing problems from Wallender's. Stefan Lindman.

Lindman has been diagnosed as having a cancer on his tongue and, after much dithering, decides to have radiotherapy. He takes sick leave from his job and wonders if he should spend the time prior to his first treatment on Mallorca.

Then he discovers that a former colleague, Herbert Molin, who retired some years previously has been murdered. Lindman lives and works in Boras, in the south of the country, but Molin has retreated to the far north of Sweden, to Härjedalen.

Realising that if he goes to Mallorca he would be a prey to his own uncertainties and fears about his condition and the possibility of his own death, Lindman drives north and offers what help he can to the officer running the investigation, Giuseppe Larrson.

Whilst taking an unofficial - and officially discouraged - interest in the hunt for Molin's killer, Lindman meets the retired policeman's neighbour as well as other people in the recluse's life.

To Lindman's dismay, Molin's neighbour is also murdered and in a similar, though not so brutal, manner as Molin. There are, however, differences, which raises the policeman's suspicions that perhaps there is more than one murderer to track down.

The prologue of the novel is set in 1945, with the execution of some sadistic Nazi war criminals so it is reasonable to assume that the cause of the murder of Molin lies in the past, as, indeed, is the case. The police are mystified by the action of the murderer who has, in a bizarre parody of dance, left the bloodied footprints of the corpse in the pattern of the tango - hence the title of the book.

Lindman's health betrays him as he seeks to uncover the mystery of the motive and identity of the killer or killers, forcing him to reconsider his involvement in the hunt. Could Molin's suspected lover be involved?

Then the author switches to the point of view of the killer, a foreigner who is bent on avenging the murder of his own father but only by executing the man responsible for that death. The second murder, by an unknown hand, forces the first killer to remain in Sweden and to adopt a similar aim to Lindman's - to seek the identity of the second killer.

Mankell has touched on what appears to be a hot topic in the Europe of today, one which could quite easily see a resurgence of a menace that flourished in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.

The author's inflicting a not immediately debilitating form of cancer on Lindman to account for his ability to throw himself into the work of an investigation run in a different region from his own was deft. The dithering of a police officer could also be attributed to his failing health.

I do have a couple of problems with aspects of the book. The murderer has camped out and not bothered to dig a hole to bury his bodily waste. Is Sweden so lacking in technology that the police do not immediately cry for DNA testing? Also, unlike so many other novelists, Mankell does not omit all mention of bodily functions other than sex. His characters are constantly relieving themselves - but most of the time going outside to 'take a pee'. Since this is not only when they are in a remote location, but also when they are in people's houses, it gives one to wonder about the toileting habits of Swedes today!

The translation from the Swedish text by Laurie Thompson is smoothly done. If the reader has noticed that it is, in fact, a translation, that fact is soon forgotten in the smooth flow of the narrative. The characters are adequately drawn - especially Lindman and the murderer - and the basic theme all too horridly possible in the modern world, given the plethora of news stories on the topic. Altogether, a rather frightening work from a believable author.

Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, November 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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