It’s a Mystery: The Dogs of Riga, by Henning Menkell

The Dogs of Riga (Wallander #2)The cop who went into the cold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Kurt Wallander leaves the comforts of his home turf in this second entry in this stellar series. Two bullett-riddled corpses in a life raft wash up on the coast near Ystad, and it soon becomes clear to Wallander’s team that they are not Swedes. Latvian seems to be their nationality, and a detective from that country, Major Liepa, is sent in to consult. Kurt and his guys are relieved (who wants to tangle with the Russian Mafia?) when Liepa takes full responsibility, returning to Latvia to continue the investigation. In a stunning development, Liepa himself is murdered on the same day he arrives home, and now it’s Wallander who is assigned to consult in Riga.

Wallander is a talented detective and a good man, but in the strange new world of post-Soviet Latvia, he’s out of his element and overwhelmed. Soon he realizes that he’s being followed 24 hours a day (by some of the Dogs of the title), and from what the Latvian police have shared with him, Kurt senses that something is terribly wrong with their story, and it scares him. But he liked Major Liepa, and when he meets his widow, Baiba, Kurt grows determined to find and expose the truth. What unfolds is a tale of the grimness of life in the Eastern Bloc, where the freedom that was promised by the demise of the Soviet Union has not been permitted to blossom.

The Dogs of Riga is part police procedural, part spy novel, and part social commentary. Henning Mankell usually writes around a theme, and in addition to Wallander’s loneliness and chronic angst (makes one wonder why his doctor never suggested a good antidepressant), the grim forces of totalitarianism, organized crime, and government and political corruption, toward which Western Europeans and Americans prefer to turn a blind eye, color every facet of this gray, gray novel. Even Wallander’s attraction to Baiba Liepa is fraught with complications that would never be a problem had they met back in Sweden. It is the social commentary that makes this novel so compelling. Dogs was originally published in 1991, and  only translated into English thirteen years later, but there is little reason to suspect that life in Eastern Europe has improved any. Mankell has done a superlative job in bringing this matter to the attention of his readers. That is not to say that Dogs is nothing more than a dull political diatribe; on the contrary, it’s a first rate thriller in every sense of the word.

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