The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell

The amassing of facts and the establishing of a chain of proof was so very much more complicated against the shadowy backdrop of a totalitarian state

It is 1991 and the ripples of the momentous change that would sweep across Eastern Europe are beginning to be felt in the Baltic. The first wave crashes onto the Swedish shore when a lifeboat containing the bodies of two Eastern European men is found on a beach on a cold winter morning. The case is given to Detective Kurt Wallander, whose team traces the men to Latvia. Wallander closes the case with the aid of Major Karlis Liepa of the Latvian police, but when Liepa is killed upon returning to Riga, Wallander finds himself drawn into deadly competitions, between a condor and a lapwing in the police force, and between the police and nationalist dissidents in the country at large.

Since The Dogs of Riga is a mystery, I hesitate to go into too much detail about its plot, but, as the second in the Wallander series, I can focus on Wallander and why I found him to be successful as the central character. Wallander is poured out of a mold labelled “detective.” He lives alone, with an estranged wife, grown daughter, and father in a retirement home, and he wants to be done with police work. Wallander does not share some of the worst detective traits like drugs, alcohol, and a toxic personality, but isolating him lead to a similar effect. Equally important, Wallander is a competent detective, as everyone recognizes, and has been on the force a long time, but he nevertheless feels completely out of his depth, continually asking himself what his now-deceased partner Rydberg would do. These combinations of divergent characteristics, combined with specific details such as the love of classical music, give depth to Wallander and propel the story by making him simultaneously uncertain and capable—a perfect pairing in a mystery. The Dogs of Riga is the second book in the series, so it is possible that some of these character traits were established in the first one, but they were more than satisfactory as introduced here.

So, did The Dogs of Riga work as a mystery? The international nature of the story sometimes made it seem as though Wallander was being yanked through events rather than unravelling a mystery, and the ultimate reveal takes the form of villainous gloating over a “doomed” victim. Likewise, it is worth wondering how much the story relies on the limitations of technology to keep up the suspense. But for all that, the story had a way of sucking the reader in, getting caught up at the intersection of multiple different plots along with Wallander. It is fair to regard The Dogs of Riga as being of its time with regard to technology and more, but the specificity that Mankell writes into Baltic at the twilight of the Soviet Union makes the read that much more compelling. I can easily see myself reading another book in the Wallander series.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am almost through Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong, a piece of cultural criticism that tries to think about how we think about the past and applying those ideas to thinking about the future.

Night Heron – Adam Brookes

Prisoner 5995, a.k.a. Peanut, escapes from a work camp somewhere in Western China after serving nearly twenty years of a sentence, eludes the manhunt and makes his way to Beijing. He finds the world has changed dramatically since his arrest and falls back on his training to evade notice while developing a plan that will punish those who he blames for his incarceration and allow him to get out China. Toward the former, he makes contact with Wen Jinghan, an engineer who had supplied him with state secrets in his former life as a spy, and with Philip Mangan, a reporter who works for the same newspaper that employed his former contact with British Intelligence. Bewildered, Mangan turns reaches out to contacts in the British government, who decide to use him as Peanut’s handler after Peanut supplies the cover page to a report detailing the state of the Chinese missile system.

The tension grows as Chinese are alerted to an intelligence leak and begin to close in on Mangan and his associates, including on his photograph and girlfriend, and the British services change the parameters of the mission. Peanut doesn’t particularly care about the secrets he is peddling and Mangan is more bewildered than dedicated, but both find themselves trapped in the space between agencies, neither of which cares about their wellbeing except to how it serves their impersonal ends.

I picked up Night Heron, Brookes’ debut novel, because of a recent interest in reading more spy/detective thrillers and it appeared on a list of best new books in the genre. There is good reason for this. Brookes, a longtime journalist in East Asia, gives enough detail about China and how it has changed in recent years, both in terms of the relationship between the citizens and the government and in terms of the physical space that there really is a particular setting. He also successfully builds suspense in this sprawling story by showing how many characters are working multiple angles, while Peanut is lost in a modern world, and Mangan is befuddled by the games within games. The lack of certainty does its job.

Brookes describes Night Heron as his “efforts to understand something of what goes on in the world of intelligence,” and this shows through. Mangan takes on the role of author and reader surrogate, trying to understand what is happening so that he can stay one step ahead of the agents trying to stop Peanut. Mangan was also the most fully-realized character, as the large number that appeared led to a number of flat characters such as the beautiful Chinese spy who seduces a married American contractor who fill out archetypes and exist for the purposes of moving the plot along more than adding much to the story in their own right. Similarly, Brookes is more adept at identifying how technology might cause a spy unfamiliar with it to go obsolete than he is at developing the consequences of those themes.

My favorite thriller novels usually raise the tension with a tight narrative that is ultimately a cat-and-mouse game between two entities. Night Heron is a small story with big stakes, but something is lost in that it also stretches to at least four or five distinct locations and with at least three distinct plots. For much of the novel the tension is that of the paranoia of the unknown and is (appropriately for this story, in my opinion) juxtaposed with the chess players back in England whose lives are not immediately at stake. The cats are not awake yet, but the mice know they are there. Toward the end of Night Heron the cats awaken, but this part of the story felt somewhat perfunctory–a frenetic chase that places the mice in danger, causes the arrest of minor characters, and validates their paranoia in spades, but was also a transition that I found jarring. These were all issues I had that were well within the parameters of the story, but that detracted from the pacing and depth of the novel in ways that struck me as signs of a first book while also giving me hope that he can mature as a storyteller.

Night Heron is a good first novel from an author who is worth keeping an eye on and gives plenty to think about, but was to my taste flawed. Hopefully the stories become tighter and more fully fleshed out as Brookes develops his craft and if good reviews continue to come in I will check back in in a few years.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I have been slowly making my way through Stefan Zweig’s beautiful The Post Office Girl while doing some recent travel. I also splurged on too many books to list here and as a result have no idea what I am going to read next, but am particularly looking forward to To Each His Own and The Day of the Owl, two short novels by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia.