The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

Kurt Wallander is the kind of man who cracks two aspirin for breakfast because there’s nothing in the fridge. Driven by a profound sense of justice, he works unceasingly to track down a killer whose attacks seem terrifyingly random.

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At the heart of the Wallander novels is the sense that there is something very dark at the heart of modern Sweden. Mostly written in the 1990s, the books appeared at a time when many people saw Sweden as a model state. It was prosperous and clean with excellent education and healthcare. The leaders were liberal-minded democrats who strove to provide social justice for all.

Henning Mankell tears the curtain aside to reveal the reality behind that illusion. Everywhere Wallander goes, he seems to encounter people with dark double lives. These are people who have body parts stashed away in secret safes, and a hidden history of violent crimes enacted in faraway lands.

While his country changes beyond his comprehension, Wallander sits at his desk seemingly overwhelmed by the violence that grows all around him. World-weary and lonely, he throws himself into his work, sleeping for a handful of hours at a time. The crimes he seeks to expose are often decades old, committed in remote farmhouses that lie in the bleak countryside. Often both criminal and victim are equally guilty, but nothing diverts Wallander from his belief that justice must be done.

Although it is almost 600 pages long, this novel is a compulsive read. Perhaps because it is a voyeuristic look behind the closed doors of small-town Sweden. Some of the crimes are rather too bizarre and complicated to be believable, but written with such elegance that you can’t help but suspend your disbelief.

One other weakness is that the other police officers on Wallander’s team are little more than ciphers. They are interchangeable to the extent that sometimes it’s hard to remember if one is male or female. This may be partly because they are so much in the shadow of the protagonist. The flawed, dogged, relentless character of Wallander himself  is good enough to stand up alongside the greatest  detectives of modern fiction, such as Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe.

This book, like all of the Wallander novels is highly recommended.

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11 responses to “The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

  1. Thanks for the review. I think I will revisit Mankell as I read one of his non Wallander novels, ‘Italian Shoes’ and found it overly introspective yet somehow lifeless. Will now search out ‘The Fifth Woman’ and give it another try.

      • I like gloomy, and introspective, and northern Scandi stuff, just prefer a few more gloomy female characters. Think Stieg Larsson got it right in his Millennium trilogy.

      • Yes they are quite violent in parts but it’s the contrast between the apparently clean-living, very nice Swedish ideals and the dark, underbelly of corrupt reality. I did start to watch the film version of Tattoo with Daniel Craig, but gave up as it was nowhere near as subtle as the book.

  2. Thanks for the review. I might re-read the Fifth woman now! I would highly recommend any of the Wallander books, which are much better than ‘Italian shoes’. The moment you read one of the Wallander’s stories, you can’t stop asking for more.

  3. Never gotten around to this Scandinavian crime book trend yet…would this be a good place to start or should I pick up something of an introduction to the character?

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