Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell

The Return of the Dancing Master features a new Henning Mankell detective named Stefan Lindman. Coincidentally, perhaps, a character named Stefan Lindman is Linda Wallander’s odd, unconventional boyfriend in the first BBC4 TV series. He was killed off at the end of the first series. This series stars Krister Henriksson, rather than the Swedish Wallander starring Rolf Larsgaard or the British version starring Kenneth Brannagh .

Published in 2000, it was translated into English in 2003 by Laurie Thompson, and won the 2005 Gumshoe Award for Best European Crime Novel.

While Stefan Lindman, a young, 37-year-old policeman, is on extended sick leave due to cancer of the tongue, he hears about the murder of Herbert Molin, his former colleague, and decides to investigate it himself. Lindman’s inquiry becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as he uncovers the links between Herbert Molin’s death and a global web of neo-Nazi activities.

Herbert Molin, a retired police officer, known to be a recluse, lives alone in a remote cottage. Two things have come to occupy his attention: his enthusiasm for the tango and an mania about “demons” he believes are pursuing him. Early one morning shots shatter Molin’s window- by the time his body is found it is almost unrecognizable. He has been dumped near his house. He’s been tortured; his back has been whipped, his feet flayed. The wounds are full of grit and dirt. There is only one clue – bloody footprints in the pattern of the tango on the living-room floor.

Like all Mankell’s thrillers, the northern European landscape and climate are characters in the novel. Most days, it drizzles, and when it’s not drizzling, it’s lightly snowing. When it’s not lightly snowing, it’s snowing for Sweden.

The central policeman, this time, Lindman, is the focus for Mankell as much as the crime itself. Struggling to face up to his own mortality following his cancer diagnosis, he is curiously freed up to investigate another person’s death. While being driven to solve a murder, he often reflects that it may be his last. The crime forces him to think about his own beliefs and values.

Giuseppe Larson joins Lindman in the investigation by a man, a infrequency character in Mankell novels, a laughing policeman. Larson is a relaxed, happily married local policeman who is more than willing to admit: “I have absolutely no idea what is going on.”

It indeed is a puzzling, intricate case with no witnesses and no obvious motives. Lindman becomes more and more impulsive as he uncovers the links between Molin’s death, World War II, and an underground neo-Nazi network that runs much further and deeper than he had ever imagined. I was unaware of Sweden’s role in World War II; officially, the country was neutral, but it gained monetarily from both sides and Swedes were split in their sentiments toward the Allies and the Axis countries.

Sweden’s part in WWII was very complex and byzantine. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Sweden allowed the Wehrmacht to use Swedish railways to transport a German infantry divisions along with their armaments from Norway to Finland. German soldiers traveling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through Sweden. Sweden sold iron ore to Germany throughout the war. At the same time, Sweden shared military intelligence with the Allies and helped to train soldiers made up of refugees from Denmark and Norway, to be used in the liberation of their home countries. It also allowed the Allies to use Swedish airbases between 1944 and 1945.

In addition, Sweden became a refuge for anti-fascist and Jewish refugees from all over the Scandinavian countries. In 1943, following an order to deport all of Denmark’s Jewish population to concentration camps, nearly all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were brought to safety in Sweden. Sweden also became a refuge for Norwegian Jews.

Molin’s murder proves to be as tangled and intricate. As Lindman’s investigation progresses, he realizes he never knew the real Molin. He learns that Molin was a lifelong Nazi sympathizer. The plot involves the secret world of Nazis, both past and present. The unrelenting Lindman turns out to be an clever and resourceful investigator, though those seeking action rather than ratiocination and psychological introspection will be disappointed. Hard-boiled detection is not Mankell’s style. Secrets are slowly and logically unraveled, and thoughtful readers with a taste for the unusual will find Lindman, and the mystery he solves, provocative.

I wish that I could read Swedish. I would like to know what Mankell’s prose technique is actually. In English, the prose can be cold and spare. On my “bucket” list, I will have to include research of the different translators of all the Mankell books I have read to compare their approaches.



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Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen

In the book and the John Huston’s movie version (there were two others made earlier) of The Maltese Falcon, nothing who is he says he is and nothing is what it appears. In Hammett Unwritten, what is true and what is imagined? This book continues that style.

A note: Owen Fitzstephan is the name of a character in Hammett’s The Dain Curse. McAlpine sensed that this character was autobiographical, that this character was Hammett himself.

McAlpine reports that he discovered the text, Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen, at the bottom of a cardboard box of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater). Thus McAlpine suggests that Hammett wrote this book, using a pseudonym from another novel, slightly altering the spelling.

Of course, McAlpine claims that this is not his real name, either, although it is.

Hammett Unwritten’s intent is to unmask the reasons of the 30-year block suffered by Dashiell Hammett. As far as we know, his last publication was The Thin Man in 1934; he died in 1961. It is generally acknowledged that Poe invented the detective story; it evolved with Doyle. Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Chesterton, Carr, and other British authors who wrote during the Golden Age of detective stories gave us outstanding mysteries and characters. But these were British detectives with sophistication and sleuthing acumen. Hammett was an American and had been a Pinkerton man.

Hammett brought his experience and background to the genre. He created a new kind of pulp fiction detective who knew how to take a punch and when and how to throw one. He worked for money; he was no amateur, no dilettante .

Sam Spade (BTW, Hammett’s first name was Samuel), Nick Charles, and the Continental Op had the intense integrity to put his own obstinate moral code and sense of justice before self-preservation or even the law. We don’t read Hammett’s stories to be dazzled by feats of deduction. We keep reading Hammett because his works because his detectives accept the violence of the world and are than more willing to get their hands dirty as they oppose it.
Raymond Chandler (I personally prefer him to Hammett) reflected on the genre Hammett invented in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” According to Chandler, Hammett “… took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

In Hammett Unwritten, a worthless bird statuette –the focus of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon sits on Hammett’s desk. As Dashiell Hammett closes his final case as a private eye, had acquired the black bird at a police auction. For a decade it bears witness to his literary rise. When the novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1959, an aging Hammett is studying his own obituary, taken from a journalist who wrote it up when Hammett had a heart attack, but recovered unexpectedly. Then a flashback takes us back to 1933, when Moira O’Shea, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, appears at his door to collect the Maltese Falcon.

Now, in 1959, suffering from writer’s block, the famous author begins to wonder about rumors of the falcon’s “metaphysical qualities,” hinted at by Moira, which link it to a powerful, wish-fulfilling black stone cited in legends from around the world. He recognizes that when he possessed the statuette he wrote one acclaimed book after another, and that without it his fortunes have changed. As his block stretches from months to years, he becomes entangled again with the scam artists from the old case, each still fascinated by the “real” black bird and its alleged magical powers. A maze of events takes Hammett from 1930s San Francisco to the glamorous Hollywood of the 1940s, a federal penitentiary at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and finally to a fateful meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1959, at a Long Island estate. There the dying Hammett confronts a woman from his past who proves to be his most formidable rival. And his last hope.

This book asks a simple question: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing? After a brilliant 12-year run that included The Maltese Falcon and ended with The Thin Man, the master of hard-boiled detection turned from the typewriter. Did he do so because he lost the falcon statue he picked up in a 1922 caper? Cutting back and forth through Hammett’s life, McAlpine may get some details wrong, but the overall portrait feels accurate. The story shines in scenes with real people such as Lillian Hellman, though encounters with people who supposedly inspired characters in The Maltese Falcon are less successful. Fans of Hammett and noir ought to enjoy requisite shocks of recognition.

In Hammett Unwritten, Hammett is drawn into a mystery far stranger than he ever could have imagined, and the ending had me engrossed. It could have been the Maltese Falcon that signaled the onset of Hammett’s writer’s block; after all, it is the belief in an object, rather than the actual object that can create fear and loathing. I was ready to believe the author’s theory.  What Hammett fans still wonder, though, is what made Hammett so willing to let go of Sam Spade, the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and his other evocative characters? In the end, many issues explain Hammett’s blocked last decades, and they all probably tell part of the story. We really can only guess what laid waste to Hammett’s genius.

In the late 1930s he began to turn his attention to politics—civil rights and workers’ rights, in particular—often using his celebrity as leverage, and that his commitment to the causes he embraced proved absolute and unwavering.

Hammett Unwritten achievement is that it accomplishes the next-best thing to writing the unwritten—it satisfies the unappeasable longing for another Dashiell Hammett novel. It picks up precisely where Hammett left off. What’s notable about Hammett Unwritten is McAlpine’s intuitive knowledge of what fans of Hammett most want. Hammett Unwritten gives his life the hard-boiled second act it most certainly deserved.

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Break My Heart 1,000 Times by Daniel Waters

I love ghost stories; this one did not impress me.

I confess that I was not familiar with the author, but, apparently, Daniel Waters is critically acclaimed for Generation Dead which has two sequels. I have not read those books. I’m not tempted.

I was intrigued by the concept, but it was never explained. There was a great deal that was left unexplained.

Since the “Event,” ghosts are a normal part of life now. Veronica’s house has two ghosts: her father’s ghost appears at the breakfast table each morning. A boy haunts her bathroom. But what was the “Event”? Was it a virus, a holocaust, a bomb, what? Calling it the Event implies that it was a single instance, but other allusions suggest that it continued over a period of time.

Some people who died have not reappeared as ghosts. Some ghosts can’t leave a specific space; others seem to be able to move about at will. Other ghosts have certain schedules when they appear; others pop up when least expected.

Veronica and Kirk take it upon themselves to investigate Mr. Bittner, one of their teachers who seems to have an intense interest in Veronica. What they uncover they never suspected.

The shift from one character to character is confusing and often distracting. Honestly, for me, the plot was predictable, the characters stereotypical. There was much more telling than showing. For example, we are told that Veronica is a flirt and has dated dozens of guys; however, there is only one other boy, besides Kirk, who figures in the story.

Apparently, Break My Heart 1,000 Times will be a movie. I think I would rather be reading another book.

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