*** I wrote this post before I heard that Henning Mankell had died this week. What a loss of a great storyteller and a man who was never afraid to speak up against injustice.***
In the 1980s and 1990s, Scandinavia was seen as a social democratic paradise where beautiful people wiled away the long summer nights frolicking in the fjords. Enjoying the benefits of world-class state education and healthcare, the people of Sweden, Norway and Denmark seemed to have created the perfect society. That was before the rise of the literary phenomenon known as Scandicrime.
Under the frosty gaze of crime writer Henning Mankell, Sweden is a very different place. It is, frankly, terrifying – a web of remote cottages set deep in the woods where loners wait to be tortured and murdered.
There was no motive, no clues, no witnesses. It was as if some mysterious evil force had been let loose, emerged from the forest to attack Molin with all its might, and then disappeared without trace.
The Return of the Dancing Master begins with a flashback sequence that would make a short story worthy of John Le Carré. In late 1945, an RAF bomber leaves England for Germany with a single passenger on board, who must return alone on the same plane less than 24 hours later. The mystified flight crew have no clue as to this individual’s identity nor the grisly task that he must perform.
As the action jumps forward to 1999, Mankell retains his focus on the war years, examining the actions of individual Swedes, as their past returns to haunt them. Events are triggered by the murder of a retired police officer, whose death is investigated by a former colleague, Stefan Lindman.
The Return of the Dancing Master does not feature Mankell’s most famous creation, detective Wallander, but Lindman is a similar sort of character. Gloomy, lonely and beset by his inner worries, Lindman launches his own unofficial investigation into the killing. Supposedly on holiday, much of his spare time is spent moping around gloomy Swedish villages before going back to his hotel to eat elk steaks and quaff wine.
The police officer has good reason to be depressed. He has just been diagnosed with cancer, in a case of art preceding life (Mankell was himself diagnosed with cancer last year, and news has just arrived that he has lost his struggle against the disease):
He wasn’t just scared, but he also had the feeling that somehow or other he was being swindled. By something invisible that had smuggled its way into his body and was now busy destroying him.
It also seemed to him rather ridiculous that he should have to explain to people that he had cancer of the tongue, of all places. People got cancer, you heard about that all the time. But in the tongue?
What looks like a simple revenge tragedy soon grows into something much worse as more and more deaths are involved. While we know the identity of some of the murderers, others remain mysterious and the motives for their crimes opaque.
The novel is utterly absorbing, with the story never letting up despite Mankell’s asides to condemn the intolerance that he feared was lurking behind closed doors:
“The woodlice are starting to crawl out from under stones”
One of Mankell’s cleverest tricks is to use unremarkable settings for his stories to convince the reader that these places and people are true. His heroes are tired, world-weary and always dreaming of escape to sunnier and more exotic climes. This helps us believe that the narrative is actually taking place, that we are at the side of the police as they sit late at night puzzling through the circumstances of enigmatic crimes.
When the violence descends on these quiet people living out their dull lives, it does so with a bewildering intensity that feels all the more forceful for touching people who seem, on the surface at least, to be much like ourselves.