The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell (Translation by Stephen T. Murray): A review

The Fifth Woman is the sixth in Henning Mankell's series of books featuring the morose Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and in this one I felt that he finally hit his stride. It was well-written (also well-translated which was important since I was reading it in English) and kept the action moving, which kept me turning those pages. It was interestingly plotted and featured a goodly number of red herrings, some of which were never explained.

By now, we are used to the fact that Wallander is a severely depressive personality who also suffers from hypochondria. He's always imagining he's coming down with something, a common cold, a heart attack, or whatever is the flavor of illness at the moment. But at the beginning of this book, we see a different Wallander. He has made a trip to Rome with his aged father who suffers from the beginnings of Alzheimer's. It is a trip that his father had long wanted to make and that had been long postponed. Both of them understand that it will most likely be their last trip together, but it is a happy time. They grow closer together and Kurt comes home with a Roman tan and a brighter outlook on life. 

He decides that he needs to make some changes. Perhaps he will buy a house, get a dog, and finally try to persuade the woman he thinks he loves, Baiba, to move from Riga and live with him. But before he is able to act on that, a man is reported missing and a few days later is found dead, impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes in a ditch behind his farmhouse. The chase is on once again and, with it, all of Kurt's doubts and insecurities return.

Then another man is reported missing. He was thought to be in Africa for two weeks, searching for orchids, but when he doesn't return on time, police discover that he never actually caught his flight out. A few days later, his emaciated and strangled body is found tied to a tree in the forest. It's beginning to look like Wallander's team may have another serial killer on its hands.

Kurt's work is suddenly complicated when his father unexpectedly dies and he is overcome with grief and regrets, but after some time off, he returns to the investigation. No real progress has been made in his absence. 

When a third man is found dead in a weighted sack in a lake, the investigative team begins to realize that they are up against a very determined killer who seems able to leave no clues. Moreover, there seems to be nothing linking the murder victims. The highly intuitive Wallander doesn't buy that, though. He knows there must be a link and the key to finding the killer is in discovering that link.

Granted, the actual manner of the killings and the plot which allows the killer to accomplish them is a bit far-fetched. Still, Mankell has obviously planned it as meticulously as his obsessive killer has planned the "executions" that are carried out. For these are executions in the killer's mind and the impetus for them relates back to the prologue of the book which finds a Swedish woman in Africa who was seemingly randomly killed in the political violence there and her murder then covered up by the police.

This is a complicated tale, but, at its heart, it is one in which we see that Kurt Wallander may finally be able to shake off his constant depression and move ahead with his life. It'll be interesting to see whether that is borne out in the several books which follow this one in the Swedish police procedural series.


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