Review: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

Title: the Dogs of Riga (the second Kurt Wallander novel)

Author: Henning Mankell (translated by Laurie Thompson)

Publisher: Vintage [originally 1991, this edition 2001]

ISBN: 1-860-46959-0

Length: 326 pages

Genre: Police Procedural/Espionage thriller

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating: 4/5

One-liner: An intense throwback to thrillers like Gorky Park

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

A lifeboat holding the bodies of two dead men washes up on the shore near Ystad, Sweden and Kurt Wallander’s team must investigate. They soon discover that the men were dead prior to being placed in the life raft and then that the men were from Latvia. A Major from the Latvian Police comes to Sweden to assist with the investigation but returns home after only a few days. A major event that could be connected then forces Wallander to go to Riga in Latvia where he is like a fish out of water in a murky political world.

I only read my first Henning Mankell book, Faceless Killers, last year (yes, yes I know I am late to the party). While it was a good read it wasn’t a great one and frankly I found Wallander to be a bit of a boring stereotype so I didn’t rush to pick up the next book in the series. However, having bought the first four books all at the same time because they were on special I embarked on The Dogs of Riga, albeit without a lot of enthusiasm. Luckily I found this story much more engrossing and stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it.

One of the things that struck me most about this particular book is what a good job Mankell does of putting readers in the shoes of Wallander the outsider when he travels to Latvia. The mix of curiosity, confusion and fear that Wallander displays seemed very natural to me. Although we often see these traits in amateur sleuths or accidental heroes we don’t often see ‘official’ investigators in situations where this kind of uncertainty would be believable but in this situation it’s entirely credible. The Latvia that Mankell depicts during a time of political upheaval is a world apart from Wallander’s native Sweden and his growing discomfort with the differences is palpable.

Despite all of that I still can’t warm to Wallander as a character. His hypochondria, bowel problems (ugh!) and ‘helpless male’ shtick just don’t grab me and nor does his habit of believing himself in love with various women at the drop of a hat. About the only thing I like about him is his habit of ‘consulting’ his recently deceased colleague and mentor Rydberg which I found quite touching. He is certainly a richly created character but not one I’d care to meet in real life. Far more than the first book in the series this was a book about Wallander alone so the rest of the characters were fairly two-dimensional although as I was so engrossed in the story I didn’t mind this as much as I normally would.

As I read the book I was reminded of Margot Kinberg’s recent blog post about the politics of murder as this book is all about politics which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. With the bulk of the book being set in one of the three Baltic states which were, when Wallander wrote it, yet to achieve their full independence from Russia the book is dripping with big picture politics and how various individuals coped with their highly charged environment. Some took advantage of the changing landscape while others fought to return to different points in the past and I was thoroughly intrigued by this depiction. In fact the book reminded me of the cold war thrillers I used to devour than a traditional police procedural.

I haven’t decided if I will read the rest of the books in this series or not as I suspect my real enjoyment of this one might be an aberration due to the subject matter and I don’t know if I can stand another encounter with Wallander’s teenager-like behaviour. Does the man ever grow up?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Inspector-Wallander.org is a great site with all the information about various incarnations of Wallander that you could possibly want. As well as details about the various books (their publication dates, translation availability etc) there are FAQs, character details and information about the various films and DVDs that have featured Wallander.

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4 Responses to Review: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

  1. Bernadette – I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re absolutely right. It’s unusual that an “official” detective would have that sense of being a “fish out of water.” That’s the scenario in several movies – some of them quite good – but not as often in novels. That alone is interesting to me. So is what you mentioned about Latvian politics. I confess I honestly know little about the politics of the Baltic States, and it sounds as though this book gives some really interesting insights. Hmm…….

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  2. Maxine says:

    Do you know I have read all the Mankell Wallenders but I can’t remember this one! They came out over so many years over here, and in such a weird order, that they’ve faded a bit. I certainly read them completely illogically and though I would have preferred to have read them in order I don’t think it matters that much.
    Wallender is a bit of a bore I agree – much more realistically middle-aged, divorced male in the books than the somewhat glamourised version in both the UK and Swedish TV series. What I like best about him is the grumpy relationship with the daughter, who at first is quite a teenage rebel – they don’t get on at all – but eventually —hmm don’t want to give any spoilers here as I don’t know how much you know about Linda. Suffice to say that she’s a much more attractive character than the father and I think the author thinks so too, as he makes her the main character of later books.

    I’m looking forward to the next Wallender, written after quite a gap, in which Linda looks as if she’s the central character again.

    Great review, as ever, Bernadette. I do so much enjoy reading your reviews. I also like political novels by the way. I’ve enjoyed those aspects of the Sjowell/Wahloo books as they have slowly built up over the 10, and of course Stieg Larsson’s last. The Serbian Dane is good on politics, too (Lief Davidsen).

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  3. Maxine says:

    PS one aspect of the Wallender books that I think lets many of them down is the denouements. They are often so unrealistic and silly. Not a bit like many other Swedish and scandinavian crime fic (where there is often no melodrama or climactic outcome at all). This is one reason I am a bit puzzled that many critics hold Mankell so much head and shoulders above other Swedish/Scandinavian crime fiction authors. He’s good, but not significantly better than the others I read, in my view – more “on a par”.

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