Friday, August 22, 2008

The Dogs Of Riga - Henning Mankell


1992 (Swedish); 2001 (English). 324 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B-
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A life-raft floats up onto the Swedish shore. Inside are the bodies of two men, shot through the heart after being tortured and then dapperly dressed. There's no ID on either man, and no markings of the origin of the life-raft. With almost nothing to go on, Swedish detective Kurt Wallander tries to solve the case, which sudsequently leads him to Latvia, which is enduring the last throes of the Soviet Union.
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What's To Like...
The emphasis here is on Wallander's (and several of his coworkers') plodding perseverence. No brilliancies; just dogged detective work. The plot unfolds beautifully as they try to determine the nationalities of the victims and the origin of the life-raft. It (naturally) quickly becomes clear that the two murders are simply a small part of a more complex plot.
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The Swedish ambiance is a welcome relief from that "bubbly buxom blonde girls skiing around as ABBA music plays in the background" scenario. Swedish winters are gray, cold, and like our Phoenix summers, seemingly never-ending. When Wallander travels to Riga, everything only gets grayer, colder, gloomier, poorer, and darker. Kewlness.
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Best of all, Wallander is a polar-opposite to a literary "Mary Sue". See here for Wikipedia's offering on Mary Sues. More about this in a bit.
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What's Not To Like...
The plot unfolds nicely, but its resolution seems hurried and forced. For 200+ pages the sleuthing creeps along, then suddenly there's a 007 shoot-em-up, where a bunch of good guys get offed, while our hero amazingly gets neither a scratch nor caught. Kinda reminds me of The Last Samurai, where a couple hundred Japanese warriors get chopped into hamburger meat by machine guns, while Tom Cruise somehow handsomely survives.
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While the Latvian ambiance is great, Mankell doesn't seem to have done much detailed research. For instance, when Wallander has to flee beyond Riga's city limits, all Mankell says is that he goes into various unnamed towns that Wallander never learns the names of. Sloppy, sloppy.
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Finally, the translation (which Mankell had nothing to do with) just sucks. There are spelling and grammar errors, and some clunky sentence structures. One wonders if this is a much better read in the native tongue.
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Mary Sue, Where Are You...
If you're tired of too-perfect heroes, Kurt Wallander is for you. He's middle-aged, somewhat overweight, and average-looking. He drinks too much alcohol, even by Scnadinavian standards. He smokes too much and is addicted to lousy coffee. He's divorced, and frankly his ex is doing better without him. His father lays guilt trips on him, and thinks Wallander made a dumb mistake by joining the police force. So far, there's nothing to prove that wrong. His (grown) daughter barely tolerates him. He hates his job, but finds that he doesn't have any alternatives. His romantic charms are non-existent. In the previous book, he threw himself at the beautiful female lead, only to have her threaten to bring a sexual harassment charge against him. Here, he falls for a mudered Latvian-detective's widow, and while she appreciates his solving the case and saving her life, she prefers to remain "just friends".
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Nevertheless, I've enjoyed both Kurt Wallander books that I've read. I think Mankell is more concerned about giving you a gritty, true-to-life picture of Sweden (and in this case, Latvia as well), letting you know of some of the serious social issues there, and having you become friends with Wallander, his family, and his fellow detectives. Now if he'd just pay more attention to the plot itself...

7 comments:

Amanda said...

I wonder if there might be another translation out there, and if not, maybe in the future there will be. Translations really do make a difference.

Julie said...

It sounds like Wallander is an interesting character. He sounds like he has a lot of flaws - is it possible to have too many? What's the term for the opposite of a Mary Sue - almost too flawed to be true. Maybe a Bob Slob or something.
Although, I've never read any of these books so I guess I really don't know if Wallander is too flawed. Did you think he was or not?

Amanda said...

I agree with Julie - when you were describing his numerable flaws, I wondered if you were leading up to term meaning the opposite of Mary Sue. He sounds almost perfectly flawed, if you know what I mean.

hamilcar barca said...

Wallander is interesting cuz he makes an effort to improve his lot. he tries to please his father; he tries to develop a relationship with his daughter; and he tries to at least be cordial to his ex.

the booze, coffee, and cigarettes give the stories a "1940-ish" feel; back when those things were considered adult privileges; not vices. one gets the feeling that Swedish winters drive its people to partake of these things.

all in all, it seems like life's been pooping on Wallander for some time, and you hope his karma gets better. through the first two books of the series, it hasn't. if i can find the rest of the series at the local used-bookstore, i'll probably pick them up.

Amanda said...

What time period does it take place in?

Amanda said...

Okay apparently I didn't pay enough attention to the review because Jason kindly pointed out to me that the answer to my question is in there...I now know the answer, my apologies.

Julie said...

Well, Wallander now sounds better than the guy that was in Amber's book review above. Thanks for explaining your thoughts about him.