One Step Behind by Henning Mankell: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the heart of the several mysteries that Kurt Wallander and his team must investigate in this seventh book in the Wallander series are secrets. The victims all have secrets which make it difficult to get a grasp on the motives and reasons behind their victimhood, and, of course, the perpetrator, a serial killer, has the biggest secrets of all.

He is a cipher, an anonymous man, someone that you would never notice. People look right through him and never see him. How will Wallander ever be able to find this invisible man?

It begins with three young friends meeting in a nature preserve, dressed in elaborate 18th century costumes, in order to celebrate Midsummer's Eve. In the middle of their happy celebration, as they are lying on the ground, a gunman steps out from behind a tree and shoots all three in the head. He then hides the bodies in a temporary grave.

Afterward, postcards start arriving from various sites around Europe informing the young people's families that they are traveling and will be returning in late summer. The mother of one of the girls doesn't believe the postcards are real. She thinks something has happened to her daughter and she harasses the Ystad police to do something about the missing trio.

The police don't really take the concerned mother's fears seriously. As long as the postcards keep coming, they see no reason to open a missing persons case.

One policeman doesn't agree. Wallander's colleague Karl Evert Svedberg smells a rat and starts investigating privately without telling anyone. He takes his annual vacation time off and spends it working on the case. Then one day, when he is supposed to have returned for work, he doesn't show up. Another day goes by and there is no word from him. That night, Wallander gets one of his famous intuitions that something is wrong and goes to Svedberg's apartment. He finds him brutally murdered.  

Sometime later, a couple goes out to the nature preserve for a Sunday of hiking and picnicking and they make a gruesome discovery - three dead and partially decomposed bodies.

All of a sudden, the Ystad police have four murders on their hands, and as Wallander digs into the cases and finds clues at Svedberg's apartment, he begins to suspect that all are related and were probably committed by one killer. Little does he know how right he is or that the horror will continue for four more killings before the madman is caught.

Meantime, while all of this is going on in his professional life, in his personal life Wallander is falling apart. Just about literally. He is overweight, approaching fifty, constantly thirsty, experiencing fainting spells and aches and pains throughout his body but especially in his legs, and he's constantly having to stop and urinate. Hmmm...could it be that our middle-aged, permanently depressed and often angry detective is suffering from Type 2 diabetes? He certainly has all the classical symptoms, and finally a trip to the doctor confirms it. He's going to have to change his lifestyle or he's going to be in big trouble. But how is he to change his lifestyle in the midst of an investigation of serial murders that keeps him working virtually around the clock?

I like to read series books in order but somehow I had picked up #8, Firewall, to read first. Having read it just a few weeks ago, I wanted to circle back and read this one while the events in that book were still fresh in my mind. As I started reading this one, I realized that I had actually seen it dramatized on PBS' Masterpiece Mystery series. But, of course, that was over a year ago and I didn't remember all the details of the story. They came back to me slowly as I read but in no way dimmed my enjoyment of the book.

Mankell is very good on plotting and pacing which are always key to the construction of a mystery and this one is up to his usual standards. Moreover, little by little we gain insight into his characters which leads us to invest empathy in these stories. Hoglund, Nyberg, Martinsson are all characters that we can care about. And Wallander, even with his irascible nature and his sudden inappropriate outbursts of temper, is someone we can admire for his passion and dedication to his job. A job that seems to be getting harder every day in a changing Sweden.

We can only hope that at some point Wallander will find some peace and happiness in his life and that he will finally get a good night's sleep and be able to make the lifestyle changes his doctor recommends. It could make a whole new man of him.

I wonder if we would still find that man as interesting.

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