THE FIFTH WOMAN by Henning Mankell

Book Quote:

“When I was growing up, Sweden was still a country where people darned their socks.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (DEC 19, 2011)

I first read this 1997 novel (the sixth in Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander series) in 2004, and saw the television adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh last year. So the general outline was familiar; I even knew who the murderer was going to be. All the same, I read the book this time with just as much enjoyment as on the first occasion, and with even more appreciation of detail of its texture. Unlike most detective novels, this one is less about the eventual solution than the process of getting there. The review from the Rocky Mountain News quoted on the back of my edition has it exactly right: “a police procedural in which the main procedure is thought.”

The first short chapter (following a brief prologue) ends with both a murder and (unusually) a glimpse of the murderer: an elderly man, coming out at night to listen to migrating birds, falls upon a group of sharpened bamboo stakes placed point-upwards in a pit; the person watching his agony from the shadows is a woman. Not that Inspector Wallander and his small team of detectives in Ystad, on the Southern coast of Sweden, realize this at first; the reader almost always knows a thing or two more than they do; the interest comes in seeing how they get there. More victims will follow; although different, the cases seem connected as different phrases in the same language that the murderer is using to communicate with the world. But this is no more than Wallander’s feeling; translating that language, finding factual connections between the victims, deducing the murderer’s motive, all this will be the work of many months.

A few weeks ago, after reading PD James’ THE PRIVATE PATIENT, I wrote a review entitled “TMI” (too much information). For almost 100 pages, James handled nothing but exposition, introducing almost the entire dramatis personae in separate chapters of great detail. Only then could the murder be committed and the work of detection begin. Mankell, by contrast, has almost no exposition at all. He plunges the reader immediately into the daily work of the Ystad police force, investigating an apparently minor crime, a break-in at a flower shop, that will turn out to have greater significance later. Mankell’s great strength is his grip of texture; he reveals information in bits and pieces, as would happen in life. You meet the officers in the station as a group who are doing a job; any personal details you might discover about them come up almost accidentally, just as they might among colleagues in the workplace; the one exception is Wallander, whose family relationships do play a small part, but their effect is to emphasize the difficulty of balancing his personal and professional life. Although this is the sixth book in a series, there is none of those tedious side-bar summaries for those who missed the earlier novels, and the reader has no sense of being left out either. You never doubt that this is a real world, not something concocted for your entertainment.

A less realistic crime novel might filter the information reaching the investigators so that everything is either a Clue or a Red Herring. Mankell does nothing of the sort; business at the Ystad station does not stop for the murders, and much information comes in that has little directly to do with them — things such as the formation of a local vigilante group to make up for the perceived inefficiencies of the police. But vigilantism does turn out to be a running theme in this novel, and yet one more example of Mankell’s underlying subject: the rapid decline of law and order in Sweden. He sees it as an age where it is easier to throw something away than take responsibility for it, an era “when people stopped darning their socks.”

Mankell’s novels have all tended to balance an inner focus on a small area of Sweden against an awareness of the outer world, especially Africa, where Mankell lives for part of each year. Even so hermetic a novel as the excellent Italian Shoes (not a Wallander story) has tentacles reaching into other continents. Of note, in one of his most recent novels, The Man from Beijing, in my opinion the balance tipped too far towards the global scene, losing the meticulous sense of local life which is his anchor. It would appear that The Fifth Woman also has an African connection; the prologue begins with a killing in the Sahara: four nuns and a fifth woman, a Swedish tourist, whose death has been suppressed by the local authorities. The back cover suggests that the fate of this Fifth Woman will be integral to the solution of the case, but the connection is merely catalytic. The true meaning of the title will appear as other women appear in the Swedish shadows, and the half-seen world has deadly impact on the real one.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 50 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (August 30, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
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December 18, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· Comments Closed
Tags: ,  В· Posted in: Sleuths Series, Sweden