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The Dogs of Riga

by Henning Mankell, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (Vintage 2004)

Reviewing, or in fact just reading, a book that was originally written in a different language usually leaves one wondering about all that has been lost in translation. And having read Dogs of Riga, I have but one regret—an inability to read the original Swedish version. Even though the action is concentrated towards the latter part of the story, there is an underlying tense anticipation throughout that makes this one a compulsive page-turner.

The story unfolds during a bitter Scandinavian winter (in 1991), and Inspector Kurt Wallander’s state of mind matches the bleak weather. Still recovering from the loss of his friend and colleague Rydberg to cancer some weeks ago, he is close to resigning as a police officer. However, an anonymous tip-off leads to a convoluted case that spans international boundaries and has a profound impact on the way this middle-aged police officer regards the rapidly changing world in and outside Sweden.

True to the mysterious phone call received by the Ystad police headquarters, a life-raft with two dead bodies washes up on a beach nearby. Despite no witnesses and no clues to the dead men’s identities or origin, Wallander’s team establishes in time that the case has its antecedents in Latvia. Just as they are looking forward to washing their hands off the matter, Sweden’s foreign ministry gets involved and a collaboration between the Latvian police in Riga and the Ystad police is arranged.

Thus, Kurt Wallander finds himself on the other side of the sea, right in the middle of the tense political turmoil of the Baltic countries just before the fall of the USSR. It is in Riga that the story really takes off. Wallander finds himself largely clueless regarding his role in the investigation, and the has trouble sorting out truth from lies in a country where police surveillance and corruption appear to be a way of life.

Mankell’s description of the Latvian capital is indeed fascinating. Turning the pages, one feels the cold seeping into one’s bones, and looks over the shoulder to see if anyone is keeping watch. You can almost imagine the bleak, empty streets, see the bullet holes in buildings. The atmosphere is haunting and cheerless, with people hunched against the cold, living their dreary, impoverished lives, afraid at every step of the powers-that-be in that totalitarian society. In such a setting, sorting friends from foes, truth from lies, Wallander ends up risking almost everything to keep a promise.

Dogs of Riga is the second Kurt Wallander book, and is a most compelling and suspenseful read. The translation appears significantly better, even though there are some irritating repetitions. “Wallander could feel himself getting annoyed” is a pet sentence—of either the author or the translator—and quite frankly doesn’t add to the Mankell/Wallander experience. He has a short temper. Got it after the first half dozen times!

RATING: 8/10