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Book review: <i>The Return Of The Dancing Master</i> by Henning Mankell

I was pleasantly surprised by The Return Of The Dancing Master. I guess from the cover I was expecting a pulp thriller of the most noxious and basic kind, with a name selected for whimsy and to sucker in people like me. What I DIDN’T look at was the author’s name... Henning Mankell. Turns out he’s Swedish. Who knew? Anyway, more to the point, the book was actually originally written in Swedish, and then translated into English. Which gives the whole experience less of a thriller feeling and more of a smugly-reading-foreign-text feeling. Which was nice.

The story

Okay. So Stefan Lindman is a police officer with problems (aren’t they all, bless their hearts?). He’s in his late thirties, not quite so enamoured with his girlfriend, and has just discovered that he has tongue cancer. He’s moping around on sick leave waiting for his radiotherapy to start when he finds out that his old partner, Herbert Molin, was brutally murdered close to the tiny town of Sveg (the only name in the book I can spell and attempt to pronounce), where he lived deep in the forest, shunning human contact. Lindman decides that instead of moping around the place he’ll head up to Sveg and have a look around, not in an official capacity, just for something to do. With the assistance of what must be the most accommodating police officer in fiction history, Guiseppe Larsson, he becomes entangled in the bygone era of the second world war and the Swedish Nazis, only to find that they aren’t so bygone. He and Larsson battle through history, prejudice, another murder, false confessions, beautiful girls, mountains and fierce snow to eventually face the murderers and try to work out what is just.

The style

The Return Of The Dancing Master is somewhat stilted, not in a bad way, but I think the translation makes it sound quite formal. It’s possible it is written like that in Swedish too, obviously. This is an interesting device to use in a thriller, because it removes any pulpy quality the story might otherwise have and makes the whole thing sound quite serious and academic. (Maybe not academic. But you know what I mean). The main character is very enjoyable; he’s kind of a weakling who’s all stressed about his mortality and his anxiety comes through beautifully in the story. The story is primarily in the third person limited but occasionally flicks over to omniscient for a flashback in time and to better acquaint the reader with the murderer. While the thriller element itself wasn’t overly memorable (macabre murder, vengeful killer, determined police officer—you know, the usual), I have to say that I did really appreciate the treatment Mankell gave to Nazism in his work. Generally, I find that the treatment of Nazism in fictitious stories (the kind that are written with the Nazism thrown in to give the thriller an intellectual feeling) to be simplistic and irritating. The Nazis were bad? Really? Good Lord, what a revelation! Next thing you know you’re stuck in a flashback with the guy out of Hogan’s Heroes to demonstrate the badness of the Nazis and then we all finish the book feeling chastised. Anyway, maybe this is a subject that is close to Mankell’s heart or one that he has researched or one that is particularly relevant in modern Sweden, but he deals with Nazism in far more socially aware and intellectual way than any other Indiana Jones style thriller I’ve read. Firstly, he makes it relevant in the nineties. Then he explores the fact that there are people with such beliefs, identifying themselves as National Socialists, still alive and well in Sweden and it is a revelation to his characters that these people aren’t thuggish skin heads but all different types of people. Without going into too much detail, Lindman has quite a personal experience as he uncovers all this. And it gives Mankell a forum to quietly and subtly soap-box about intolerance and such things without seeming to preach. And I want him to have lots of credit for that, because I thought it was excellently done!

Who is this book for?

People who like the crime thrillers. It really is a good one, a cut above the trash American ones with its seriousness and its social comment about modern Sweden. And while it is a bit more serious, it’s still very easy to read and pretty engrossing (as a thriller should be). A good book for the bus, or a lazy holiday day.

If you like this book, you would also like...

DON’T read the American thrillers, you’ll only be disappointed! You could try Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks or Barry Maitland’s No Trace, both good solid British crime fictions. You could also try Ian Ranking (there will be reviews of his here soon) and/or Val McDermid, or if you are keen for more European crime Just A Corpse At Twilight is excellent.

In short

Title: The Return Of The Dancing Master
Author: Henning Mankell
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099455463
Year published: 2004
Pages: 519
Genre(s): Crime fiction
, Detective fiction, Thriller
Review Type: