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Book Review: The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

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The Dogs of Riga was Henning Mankell's second book in the Wallander series, and it's perhaps one of the most fully characterized books in the series. This is in part because the action happens, in large part, outside of Mankell's (and Wallander's) comfortable Swedish home, allowing readers to see Wallander in a country where he's completely powerless.

The mystery starts in Sweden, in familiar Ystad, when a life-raft carrying two dead men washes ashore. Wallander and colleagues quickly figure out that the raft and its contents are from the former Soviet region. When the men are identified as Latvian, a police major from Riga, Major Liepa, joins the Swedish task force to figure out what exactly has happened.

The mystery eventually leads Wallander to repay the visit. Riga, the capital of Latvia, offers an entirely new experience — a city where the police are suspected of rank and terrible corruption, where there's an internal war over whether and how to fight Russian influence in the now-shattered former Soviet states. Wallander finds himself alone, without rank or its privileges, in a state where everyone's every move seems to be under surveillance.

Your standard police detective would flourish in a setting like this. Wallander, on the other hand, shows an impressive lack of courage. He quite literally hasn't got the stomach for the kind of case he finds himself in (and, I wonder, is there any other mystery writer so attuned to the bowels of his character as Mankell?). Wallander keeps going, but not for motives of personal glory or even justice. Instead, to the extent that he perseveres, here, here, it's from a base desire to get closer to a woman he barely knows but quickly claims to love. At the end of the book, he's somehow both a better police officer and a much more pathetic creature.

This book felt far different from the Swedish anxiety pieces that Mankell usually writes; his judgment falls harshly upon the Swedish people for their ignorance about what was happening nearly next door. So in some ways, it's less fun to read; in others, it's more fun, because it has all the fantastic elements of spy craft within it that Mankell goes on to show off in The Man from Beijing. Ultimately, I enjoyed it, though it was a strange follow-up to the procedurally uncomplicated Faceless Killers.

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About Jenn Kepka