Review

The Return of the Dancing Master

by Henning Mankell



I've always loved a mystery, but I'm picky. A lot of authors who
regularly make the bestseller lists leave me as cold as the corpses
they write about (I'm not naming names for fear of casting
aspersions on anyone else's taste). My pantheon includes the
British classics (Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie,
Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers) and their heirs (P.D. James and her
ilk), but also some less decorous titles, like really good
serial-killer yarns. And I'm partial to complex, gritty police
procedurals with a European flavor --- like THE RETURN OF THE
DANCING MASTER.

Summarizing this novel, it sounds pretty melodramatic: War crimes.
Neo-Nazis. A torture-murder. A second murder that looks like an
execution. But like all Henning Mankell's mysteries, it is also
powerfully matter-of-fact. The book is as much about the daily
obsessions of Stefan Lindman --- a police officer with a cancer
diagnosis, troubled memories of his father and an ambiguous
relationship with an older woman --- as it is about getting shot at
in the dark Swedish woods (though there is plenty of action, too).
Lindman is a kind of an anti-hero: surprisingly earthy ("Of all the
joys that life had to offer, peeing at the side of the road was the
best"), relentlessly unglamorous, with the combination of
intelligence and persistence that gets crimes solved. In this he is
very much like Kurt Wallander, the protagonist of an earlier series
of suspense novels by Mankell. They are both smart, rather isolated
men struggling to make connections, and their flawed humanity is
endearing.

Making connections, to solve a case and/or to save one's soul, is
the essence of THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER (if you're
wondering about the title, I'll say only that tango steps are an
important clue). Partly to escape his fear of death (he's on sick
leave, awaiting radiation treatments), Lindman leaves his home in
the south of Sweden and goes north to investigate --- unofficially
--- the murder of an older police officer he once worked with. He
forms a friendly alliance with a local cop, Giuseppe Larsson (who
blames his opera buffa name on his mother's major crush on
an Italian crooner), and what started as a quick trip stretches
into an obsessive pursuit of a murderer . . . or is it two
murderers?

You think I'm going to tell? Not a chance. In any case, the thrill
of chasing a killer is not the only attraction of THE RETURN OF THE
DANCING MASTER; there are larger issues here. The novel challenges
the popular image of Sweden as irreproachably anti-Nazi (or at
least neutral) during World War II and suggests that the country
harbors secret fascist organizations even today. The alertly
political aspect of Mankell's work reminds me of the wonderful
mysteries written in the 1960s and '70s by a Swedish couple, Maj
Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (some have been reissued by
Vintage): they share a fundamental decency, a penchant for social
criticism and a strong sense of history.

Mankell's prose, like his characters, is plain rather than fancy,
and the translation (by an Englishman, Laurie Thompson), not always
in the American idiom ("take it with a pinch of salt"; "a bolt from
the sky"), can seem stilted at henning. But after a while it grows
on you, like a foreign accent. And if your knowledge of Sweden is
limited to Ingmar Bergman films, THE RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER
gives a visceral sense of the country: frozen lakes, deep forests,
piercing cold, people who keep to themselves and stay warm as best
they can.

I must confess, though, that I missed Kurt Wallander. Now that I've
read seven mysteries featuring this irresistible cop, he and I have
a history: the details and texture of his life carry over from book
to book. If you're new to Mankell, get acquainted with Wallander
henning. You won't be sorry.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

The Return of the Dancing Master
by Henning Mankell

  • Publication Date: March 25, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • ISBN-10: 1565848608
  • ISBN-13: 9781565848603