The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell


Not surprisingly, writing in The Dogs of Riga was greatly different from The Man Who Smiled. While Mankell is known for his sparse prose it seemed that in the Man Who Smiled he took it to absurd levels. There is very little description of anything aside from bleak weather. That may be an overstatement, but not by much.

I found The Dogs of Riga a much more enjoyable book on many different levels. It was not a standard police procedural, with the slow accumulation of first leads then facts, with the detectives making an intuitive leap that helps solve the crime. It starts out that way and then about mid-book starts accelerating into new and unpredictable terrain.

There are a great many more characters, and many of them have developed personalities rather than stiff stereotypes. The plot is convoluted and interesting. Areas of Riga that are not central to the plot but visited are described. In the past cities are blank slates. He actually eats something aside from sandwiches and coffee. In the past I always wonder what type of sandwich, does he drink his coffee black. No idea.

While the police detective Kurt Wallander is very methodical, making list and linking what he knows, he does not seem to be methodical in any other area of his life, which always strikes me as odd. I compare it to Edward X. Delaney, the methodical police man in Lawrence Sander’s The First Deadly Sin and other books. The main character is obsessed, in some ways, with details. His sandwich making decisions-type of bread, condiments and cold cuts, changed the way I looked at making them. The opposite is Wallander, who only eats generic ‘sandwiches.”


An odd note about The First Deadly Sin. When I was reading the book, years ago, I was as usual reading several books at one time and stopped reading it for a while. When I came back the detective knew who had committed the crime and I had no idea where he had gained that insight. I was a bit disappointed with the book and when I finished it I gave it to my brother. A few days later he came back complaining that it was missing a chapter. Mystery solved!

Back to Riga. There were a number of plot twists that surprised me and the pace, while pretty usual for Mankell in the first half tremendously speeds up in the second. The international flavor, with Latvian, Swedish and Russian influences was interesting and made it part spy novel as well as a detective story. I did not figure out the finale until it happened, although to be honest I rarely solve the crimes.

One friend suggested that it might be the translator. I have read in the past how some publishers have top notch translation teams while others are considered substandard. Not sure if that is the case here. If so, one of the two took some liberties that really changed the tone of the books.

On a slightly different note, it is often mentioned that Mankell writes with traditional Scandinavian gloom. I have only met three people from Sweden and two from Norway but they were all sunny, ebullient people. Maybe it was meeting them in a California beach town that drove away the dourness that is so prevalent in these books.

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