On the 13th day of February 1991, a life raft is found washed ashore near Ystad in southern Sweden. Inside are the bodies of two men who had been tortured, drugged, shot and set afloat on the Baltic Sea.
For police detective Kurt Wallander, the question of who they are is answered soon enough. Answering the question of why they were killed becomes the challenge.
The challenge is told in Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga, the latest in the Wallander series to be translated into English. Mankell, still little known in North America, is a superstar among many European crime fiction fans. Before Laurie Thompson’s translation of 1992’s Hundarna i Riga, five others books in the Wallander series have been brought to English-speaking audiences.
With the help of police in Rīga, the two dead men are identified as Jānis Leja and Juris Kalns, Mafia criminals in a Latvia that is still under Soviet occupation but slipping away fast.
Soon, Wallander and his colleagues on the Ystad force are visited by Maj. Kārlis Liepa of the Rīga police. Their brief collaboration results in the case—and the bodies—being handed off to the Latvians. Wallander and his colleagues are freed of the nuisance of a double murder that appears to be linked to the Russian Mafia in an era when the Soviet Union still has not crumbled. But when Liepa is murdered the day of his return to Rīga, Wallander finds himself back on the trail, this time in Latvia.
Mankell’s Wallander is one of those anti-cops who appear in so many European crime novels: competent, but self-doubting, skeptical of their place in society and of the role of the state. Wallander also is pestered by personal problems, including a gruff and demanding father and a college-age daughter with whom his relationship is strained. And on top of it, Wallander is doubly lonely, still coming to terms with the fact that his wife has left him and always trying to guess what his late partner, Rydberg, would have done when faced with various roadblocks in an investigation.
Wallander first came to my attention on film. The 1996 thriller White Lioness, based on Mankell’s book of the same title, had Wallander travelling to post-apartheid South Africa to investigate a plot to assassinate Nelson Mandela. Actor Rolf Lassgard’s portrayal of Wallander has molded how I imagine the detective looks and behaves. But it was his subdued love interest—Baiba from Latvia—that has kept me wondering and wanting to learn more.
And in The Dogs of Riga I find my answer. Baiba is Baiba Liepa, the widow of policeman Kārlis. European filmgoers may be familiar with the 1995 Swedish-Danish film Hundarna i Riga, directed by Pelle Berglund, that was partly filmed in Rīga and featured Charlotte Sieling in the role of the Latvian widow.
In The Dogs of Riga, Wallander is brought face-to-face with the uncertainties of life in the Latvia of early 1991. "You have to understand, Inspector Wallander, that you are in a country where nothing is decided," a Latvian police colonel tells the Swedish cop as they drive through Rīga. (Mankell himself, in an afterword, notes that the novel was finished a few months short of the August 1991 coup in Moscow that led most directly to Latvia’s re-emergence as an independent nation.)
The Swedish detective goes to occupied Latvia to help investigate the murder of a cop. "I investigate real crimes that have been committed by real people," Wallander tells a mysterious man named Upītis, in the process admitting his political naivete. But he soon learns that reality is not always what it seems, a characteristic of life under Soviet rule.
The Dogs of Riga is a well-written thriller. The character of Kurt Wallander is more than enough to keep the novel moving ahead, particularly as he strives to make sense of himself and the world around him. For a reader knowledgeable in recent Latvian history, it’s even more fascinating to see an outsider’s view of the calm before the storm, even if some of the situations seem a bit far-fetched.
The Dogs of Riga
London: The Harvill Press, 2001
Notes: Translated by Laurie Thompson.
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