The Fifth Woman is the probably-not-coincidentally fifth installment in Swedish author Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender police procedural series — or, as some critics choose to call it, Scandinavian noir. Published in the USA in 2000, the book is set in 1994 and follows detective Wallender and his team and they try to solve a series of cruel and inexplicable murders in the fall of that year. Along with Wallender’s point of view we get sections in the killer’s as well, which ups the suspense and gives us information the police don’t have.
The book is bleak, disillusioned and at times pretty implausible. It’s Nordic — what did I expect?
As the story opens, Wallender returns to work after a week in Rome with his father. The trip was a good one and there is a rapprochement between the two usually estranged men that promises to flower into a closer relationship. Almost immediately, Wallender is confronted with a corpse found at the bottom of a ditch, impaled on bamboo “pungee sticks.” It is not only a cruel murder, it’s a baffling one. From there the story ranges on, from Swedish mercenaries in what was then the Belgain Congo in the 1960s to a maternity ward in the local hospital in the story’s present. Anther victim is discovered and then a third, each killed in a different but vicious manner.
Meanwhile, a dire occurrence with Wallender’s father changes that relationship forever; Wallender continues to waffle on both buying a house and getting a dog; his relationship with a woman friend who lives in Latvia founders, and the police face a growing nationalist movement that expresses itself as a “citizens police force.” Along the way there is plenty of discussion about the growing callousness and cruelty among society, and various theories put forth as to why that is happening.
Swedish law and procedure in the 1990s was markedly different than the USA and that was a small stumbling block for me. It was just an adjustment. Mankell uses his story to give a critique of sexism; particularly, the blind spots people (of both genders) have about women. Overall, the sameness of the prose and the relentless downbeat nature of the story wore on me. I don’t know how many times in a book a character can react to a new fact provided with “unease.” (This is clearly a translation issue.) The book is longer than some of the other Wallender books, and moved very slowly as Mankell meticulously takes us on every single false lead and detour in the case. For example, did I miss the role the Swedish mercenaries played? Were they somehow related to the later murders in Africa that set the book in motion? Did the shrunken head offer any meaning to solving the case? These things were informative and atmospheric as hell but didn’t seem to more the story forward.
What I liked was the view of Sweden, grappling with economic and political changes in the 1990s. While the shift toward neo-Nazism and anti-immigrant sentiment is disheartening, it is plausible and opens a window into the national psyche.
If you like grim, downbeat, dark-night-of-the-soul noir, than this might be your cup of tea — or maybe coffee and a sandwich. So, if you can, enjoy.