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The White Lioness

by Henning Mankell, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (Vintage, 2003)

He [Wallander] wondered what it felt like to believe in a god.

How can the disappearance of a Swedish real estate agent lead to a South African political conspiracy? Henning Mankell explains, and in doing so creates an atmosphere of intrigue and suspense that leaves no doubt to his class as a crime novelist.

The White Lioness opens with estate agent Louise Åkerblom in Skåne looking forward to the weekend with her family, when her life is brought to an abrupt end by an inexplicable murder. However, when Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are called in to investigate, they can find no cracks in the Åkerbloms’ contented world. Who could possibly want Louise dead and why? Even when the existence of a stalker comes to light, the man in question has a watertight alibi and we are back to square one.

All of a sudden, the scene shifts to South Africa, where a bold political assasination is being planned. Consider the background. It is the early 1990s and Nelson Mandela has just been released and aparthied has officially ended. However, the country is in turmoil, with a certain faction of Afrikaners vehemently opposed to the release of Mandela, branding President de Klerk a traitor. One such group of men—drawn from various high-level goverment posts—forms a secret group, determined to set a different course for South Africa’s future, one that they assume is the only way. And central to their plan is a dangerous criminal called Victor Mabasha.

The story weaves back and forth between Sweden and South Africa, and Mankell does a terrific job of keeping the interest alive with parallel narratives even without the presence of his main characters. Fiction though this is, its plot centres around some powerful and famous real-life political personalities.

All too soon, Kurt Wallander, struggling with personal problems, finds himself embroiled in a political controversy he has no interest in. He is still moping over Baiba Liepa, the woman he met in Latvia (in Dogs of Riga), his house has been burgled, he and his daughter are drifting apart again, and his eighty-year-old father wants to get married.

If there is a weakness in the story, it is that Wallander’s motives for doing what he does are obscure at best. Basically a good, honest person, a conscientious policeman with a decent record, a loving, if error-prone, father, why would he put his life and career at stake for the second time in the span of a year is a question that remains unanswered. The other thing is, the realization what the conspirators’ real plan is could have been made into a shocking revelation. Instead, it is woven into the story in an almost off-hand manner.

As the story races to its final climax, Wallander’s life seems close to being ripped apart. There have been many comparisons of him to the Scottish detective John Rebus (Ian Rankin’s creation), but one distinct difference comes to light in The White Lioness—Wallander appears a much more emotional character and does not wear his lone wolf raiment particularly well, which is what makes him rather likeable. It is hard to imagine Rebus coming home after nearly losing his life and calling his daughter, struggling to control his tears, telling her that he wants to talk to her even though it is the middle of the night. John Rebus would never tell Samantha why he went to Latvia and what happened there like Kurt Wallander tells Linda.

The usual feeling of meanings being lost in translation remain, with the narration gripping but stilted in places. The biggest casualty is, of course, conversation. However, this doesn’t take much away from the enjoyment. This being the third book in the series, certain personal information about the characters comes to light that would have been interesting in the earlier books as well. We still don’t know the name of Wallander’s father, but we know his boss Björk’s first name is Otto, and colleague Svedberg is Karl Evert. And Kurt Wallander’s official rank is Detective Chief Inspector.

RATING: 8/10