Friday, April 22, 2016

Adventure classics – A cold triple whammy of murder

The Dogs of Riga
by Henning Mankell
I think even American crime writer Elmore Leonard would have made an exception to his advice never to open a book with a description of weather in the case of Scandinavian crime fiction. There’s a certain rightness to a story about cold-blooded murder in a cold country (and in the near wake of the Cold War) opening, as Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga does, with “It started snowing. . . ”

The natural world – its weather, its landscape, its oceans and their currents -- are especially important in this story about a most unnatural act of murder. But don’t expect nature to be kindly in Mankell’s 1992 story (first published in English in 2001). This is the second of his police procedurals featuring Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (but oddly, the fourth to be translated into English).

Weather is only one more enemy for Wallander to contend with when his office in the coastal town of Ystad receives an anonymous tip that two dead men in a rubber life raft are drifting shoreward. He can only hope the call is a hoax as he goes off duty that evening, heading toward the gloomy home life de rigueur for protagonists of Nordic noir. Wallander’s consists of an estranged wife, an estranged adult daughter, and an estranged (naturally) elderly father who constantly berates him for becoming a police officer.

When he goes to bed, the thermometer reads -3 degrees Celsius. When he wakes the next morning, the life raft and its grim cargo have indeed washed ashore. The dead men are fairly young, well-dressed in foreign clothes. Each has been shot through the heart.

Their only possible identification: “Their dental work wasn’t done by Swedish dentists,” the police pathologist says. “Could have been by Russian ones, though. . . Or dentists from one of the Eastern bloc countries. They use quite different methods from us.”

And by the way, the men have also been tortured. And the raft they were on turns out to have been manufactured in Yugoslavia. Given all that, and that the currents of the Baltic Sea could have propelled a raft from any of several states of the former Soviet Union, Wallander is less surprised than annoyed when a Major Liepa from the police force in the Latvian capital of Riga pays a call.

(The illustration for this post, from a c. 1940 German atlas, indicates the proximity of the countries involved. The country labeled “Lettland” on the map is present-day Latvia.)

The men’s fingerprints, Liepa says, show them to be a pair already known to Latvian police as notorious criminals. The police in Sweden are only too happy to transfer jurisdiction of the case to him.

“(Liepa) was very short-sighted. His rimless spectacles seemed to be much too weak, and when he was reading he held documents only a couple of inches in front of his eyes. He seemed to sniff the paper, rather than scrutinizing it, and anyone watching found it hard not to laugh out loud.”

Despite his oddities, Wallander finds the “little hunch-backed Latvian major. . . an extremely shrewd and perceptive police officer.” He genuinely mourns when, after Liepa returns to his country, a telex arrives from the Riga police reporting that it is now Liepa who has been murdered the day after arriving home. Will the Swedish police be able to provide any assistance?

And Wallander’s real murder investigation begins.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes an April of mysterious adventures with Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga.)

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