I don't know what it is that has suddenly caused this rise in recognition of foreign writers, but it can only be a good thing. Jose Carlos Somoza, Boris Akunin, Karin Fossum, Carlo Lucarelli, and the Dark Wintry King of them all, Henning Mankell, who is increasingly a phenomena. His books fly off the shelves on mainland Europe, he's mobbed in the streets in his native Sweden, in Germany he apparently outsells J.K. Rowling (it's about time someone did), and half-Swedish Ruth Rendell has taken the trouble to read all the novels in their original language, admiring the fascinating procedural detail, which is just one of Mankell's strengths. He never shies from portraying the dull of aspects of routine police-work, but somehow manages to put such a spin on them as to make them interesting. And although The Return of the Dancing Master is a departure from his ever-better Kurt Wallander series - although it may as well not be, for how similar and ominously gloomy the two different protagonists are, it is just as excellent, and probably even better.
Retired policeman Herbert Molin lives a hermetic existence in a lonely house in the middle of a North-Sweden forest. Whatever he's hiding from, he's eluded it for 11 years, occupying himself with his fears, his jigsaw puzzles, and his dancing. Then, one day he is found beaten and lashed, lying dead in the snow on the edge of the wood. In his house, bloody footprints pattern the floor, marking out the steps of his favourite dance, the tango.
When Stefan Lindman, on sick-leave and obsessed with death having recently been diagnosed with cancer, reads of his old colleagues murder, he ventures north to the forests of Molin's retreat in order to try and find out more about who killed him, and in doing so places himself into a bleak investigation that stretches itself back to the evil acts of the second world war, and forces him to confront uncomfortable truths about his modern-day Sweden.
I can well see how Mankell's books, this one in particular, may not be suited to all. The Return of the Dancing Master - this title has quickly jumped to the top of my "Favourite Book Titles" list - is a dark, bleak and intense book with a heavy, dark atmosphere. There is little sunlight to be glimpsed anywhere, literally or metaphorically. So this is not for people who like their fiction light and happy, but more melancholy and affecting.
Sweden is evoked brilliantly, which is important as setting is one of the three necessary factors required in order to make a crime book effective, the other two being plot and character, where Mankell succeeds as well. The vast lonely forests of Northern Sweden contribute effectively to the bleakness (as you can tell, "bleak" is very much a watch-word here) of the book, and it is clear that Mankell has a very good handle on his country, and although is fond of it, shows us the things which worry him about modern Sweden, which he has said he thinks is a "pretty average" society. Here we are treated to bigotry, racism and neo-Nazism in pretty heavy doses, which makes for some disturbing scenes, and along with the atmosphere and the morbidity-obsessed lead character, it all correlates into a pretty dark book. Dark but brilliant, though. Mankell is an incredibly powerful writer, and that gift is on display here right from the beginning. The prologue gives us a vision of the executions of Nazi war criminals in 1945, and then in the first chapter we read terrified yet gripped by the throat as a scared, lonely old man's isolated home is assaulted in the dark, the windows shot out and he himself slaughtered.
The Return of the Dancing Master is bleak, yes, but it is fascinating, chilling, with the traditional flawed-hero (just what IS it about these kinds of people???) and it's refreshingly unformulaic. The plot is not once predictable, and constantly shifts beneath the reader to create a kind of gutsy suspense and a great pace. It's not quite perfect (there are a couple of kinks in the translation, I think, but that's forgivable) but apart from that it nearly is! A dark, excellent story by an incredibly talented writer, and I am absolutely sure that this will end up as one of my favourite reads of the year. If you want to try Mankell, start here. Whatever the price, the experience of this is well-worth it.