More crime, more studying the form. One book of note in my attempt to dig ever deeper in the psyche of the genre – The Return of the Dancing Master. I don’t know why, but lately I’ve found crime (and spy thrillers) to really float my boat. The engine of the novel keeps the logic-driven part of my mind entertained, while the rest of me relaxes to enjoy the prose or characterisation. All the time, I’m still picking apart methods, plotting, cause and effect. It’s fascinating because I’m conscious I’m now directly overlaying fantasy and crime in my own writing to see where the genres fall apart, so this sort of study is central to my reading at the moment.
The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell, centres on a man called Lindman. He’s a police officer who goes on sick leave when he’s diagnosed with a form of cancer, and while he’s not actually at work decides to keep on going anyway, elsewhere in the country, where he looks into the death of a strange former colleague Herbert Molin. Actually, death really doesn’t do this murder justice. It’s brutal – more of a horrific, slow torturing and eventual butchering. Bloodied footprints are left – prints that form the tracks of a tango where the killer had danced with the corpse.
Of course, there’s the set-up: there’s the drive that keeps things ticking over. Why would an old man who lives in a remote part of the Swedish countryside be killed in such an unusual manner? I often find that the more curious the start of a crime novel, the more the reader will continue reading: surely the job of any thriller writer. Hence the combination of a retired old man and his horrific ending. Clearly, it’s what he did in his past that led to the death, but already the reader is being prompted to search their mind: what could he have done to warrant this end?
Though not a Wallander novel, this is unmistakably Mankell: an almost distant, cold prose that allows him to get deep into his characters’ heads. Environment is key, feeding the plot and never merely being a thrown-up aesthetic.
One of the most impressive, and rarely covered traits of Mankell’s crime novels, is that he always sets a couple of plots running side by side – the issue of Lindman’s cancer testing and how it is affecting his personal life, juxtaposed alongside the murder investigation itself. Though Mankell puts a rare happy, chuckling character in the novel – Giuseppe Larson – as a local police officer informally working with Lindman, it’s really Lindman who this novel is about every bit as much as the murder victim.
Mankell is perhaps the gold standard at the combination of the personal and the professional narrative strands. Often themes overlap, sometimes they don’t, but the way they play off each other is fascinating. Mankell is very clever at working the book like this. It’s precisely because of this that he easily creates a page-turner without it ever resorting to the cheap tricks that belittle the phrase.