Friday, April 29, 2016

Adventure classics – Detectives too good for their own good

The Dogs of Riga
by Henning Mankell
***
The only thing that could make the police force in the small Swedish town of Ystad happier than solving a politically-awkward double murder is getting the case transferred out of its jurisdiction. In the case of Henning Mankell’s 1992 mystery classic, The Dogs of Riga, that jurisdiction is across the Baltic Sea in the capital city of Latvia, a country newly emerged from the ruins of the fallen Soviet Union. Somewhat to the surprise of Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander, during the investigation he’s taken a liking to short, nearsighted Major Liepa, the Latvian counterpart who has solved part of the mystery – the identity of the two dead men who washed up on Ystad’s coastline on a rubber life raft.

On Friday, Wallander sees Liepa off on his flight back to Riga with a farewell gift of an illustrated book on Ystad’s county. Not much, but the best he can think of. “I’d like to hear how things turn out,” he tells the major.

Back in his office Monday morning, his chief advises him Ystad has received a telex from the Riga police. Wow, he knew Liepa was a good detective, but news already? “What’s he got to say?” Wallander asks. The answer: “I’m afraid Major Liepa is not able to write anything at all. . . He has been murdered.”

Wallander can hardly refuse to fly to Latvia in response to the Riga police department’s request for help, but once there, he notices two things very surprising to him: how extremely cold it is in Riga, and how lovely Baiba Liepa, the dead Major Liepa’s widow, is.  Oh, and a third thing: how much the influence of decades as a Soviet vassal state still lingers in Latvia.

What he learns from the local police is that after Liepa finished his official report late on the day of his arrival in Riga, he went home. Late that night, he received a phone call and left the house, telling his wife only that he had to go straight to police headquarters. The next morning, dock workers found his body, the skull smashed in.

“It’s very rare for a police officer to be killed in this country,” police tell Wallander. “Least of all one of Major Liepa’s rank. Naturally, we’re very keen for the murderer to be found as soon as possible.”

Wallander, however, soon has reason to believe the official version of Liepa’s death is less than completely ingenuous, and to suspect that Liepa’s own detective skills had led him too close to a deadly secret. Soon both Wallander and the major’s widow are involved in a deadly cat and mouse game between drug smugglers such as the now-identified dead men on the raft, who take advantage of the region’s post-Cold War turmoil and a band of would-be political reformers. And the death toll mounts.

Will Wallander be able to follow the clues to the evil at the heart of the labyrinthine police headquarters? Will the perpetually love-lorn Wallander and Baiba Liepa be able to find solace for their losses? Most important, will either of them make it out alive? Fortunately, The Dogs of Riga is readily available in a number of languages to provide the answers.

Can’t get enough Scandinavian crime fiction? For more reading suggestions, see “A Cold Night’s Death: The Allure of Scandinavian Crime Fiction”, which includes a pronouncing the names of those notable authors.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics stays firmly planted in Scandinavia as it begins a May of historical fiction with Björn Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger.)