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by Henning Mankell
New Press, September 2006
336 pages
ISBN: 1565849930

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

No one reads Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series for levity and wit. And the title of the latest to be translated into English -- THE MAN WHO SMILED -- is the nearest you'll get to humour. Once you read the book, though, you'll discover the sinister overtones there as well.

The book opens with Wallander on a path to self-destruction. He's on long-term leave from the police, having shot a man in self-defence. He appears to be drinking and bonking his way round Sweden and all points east.

Wallander's colleagues assume he'll quit, and he's all set to sign the relevant paperwork. But a bizarre case gets under his skin, following a meeting with Sten Torstensson who tells him he is sure his lawyer father was murdered. Within a week, though, the son is also dead. And very soon other lives are at risk.

If you've been keeping up with this series, you'll already know that for some unfathomable reason, they're appearing out of order both in the States and the UK. THE MAN WHO SMILED has Wallander's father still alive. It also introduces us for the first time to Ann-Britt Hoglund and we find out what made her join the police.

The book's beginning is so spooky that it made me look over my shoulder for a week or so when I drove along dark lanes. As usual with Mankell you get a large helping of drab Swedish landscape, lots of morose people, and fairly slow-moving action. But the book is a tense and creepy read.

Wallander is the archetypal loner, who drinks too much and has a screwed-up family life. THE MAN WHO SMILED captures the frustration of slow-moving police enquiries with countless knockbacks and dead ends. Towards the end, though, Mankell, a writer who achieves his aims by masterful underwriting, takes this to extremes by fast-forwarding with a throwaway phrase or two.

And there's a very odd, faintly unlikely ending, which feels like it's muscled its way in from an episode of 24. But given the state of Wallander's mind throughout the book, and the quality of Mankell's writing throughout this excellent series, it just about gets away with it.

THE MAN WHO SMILED isn't the best in the series, but the later books -- which are already available in translation -- make more sense once you've read it. And it's still an absolutely engrossing read.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, August 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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