The Fifth Woman
by Henning Mankell
Published by The New Press
423 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Originally published in Sweden as Den Femte Kvinnan, The Fifth Woman opens with a shocking, exotic vignette told so straightforwardly that trust in the author is immediate and interest in the aftermath rapacious. Could any crime fiction reader ask for more?
Thanks to Steven T. Murray's superb translations, English language readers are getting a taste of Swedish author Henning Mankell's powerful series about police detective Kurt Wallander. The Fifth Woman (the sixth book in the series, and the fourth translated into English) finds Wallander just returned from a bittersweet trip to Rome with his father, an artist in the grips of the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Concerns about his father's health, his own plans to remarry and the increasing independence of his adult daughter in Stockholm have Wallander distracted and unprepared when he and fellow detective Ann-Britt Höglund come across the first clues in what will become the grimmest and most challenging case of his career.
Reviewers have classed Wallander with the self-aware European detectives created by Nicholas Freeling, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. There's no question that Wallander is a far cry from the macho cops of American crime fiction. While chilling violence permeates The Fifth Woman from first page to last, there is no gratuitous toughness or cleverness to mar the story's credibility; no attitude, not even irony, gets in the way at all.
Mankell prefaces the book with a thought-provoking proverb: "With love and care the spiderweb weaves its spider." The story begins at the far reaches of such a web, with a series of seemingly unconnected events that take place in and near the city of Ystad. A lonely woman receives a letter from Africa with news of her mother's murder. Holger Eriksson, a retired industrialist and amateur poet, vanishes from his estate. A break-in occurs at a city florist shop and the intruder has left a pool of blood. Wallander and Höglund at first treat their investigations of the disappearance and the break-in as mere routine. This is spine-tingling for the reader, who knows that Eriksson is not merely missing, but dead, impaled on spikes in a remote area of his estate. The florist, who police suppose to have left on a business trip, has been kidnapped, blindfolded and is being tortured.
The Fifth Woman proceeds at a measured pace, but Wallander proves fine company. A veteran detective, he has gone as far up the ladder as he can without entering the despised ranks of management. He champions Höglund, a talented investigator whose domestic problems with husband and kids have led her other male colleagues to discount her. Wallander struggles with doubts about marriage to Baiba (she teaches in another city -- we never meet her). Phone encounters with his ex-wife and his daughter are awkward. There is little question that Wallander feels more comfortable and competent in his professional life than in his private life -- until he uncovers the gruesome murder scene at Eriksson's estate and unsavory information about both Eriksson and the missing florist come to light. Soon Wallander comes to suspect that, against the odds and his own common sense, the humdrum city of Ystad may be home to a female serial killer with a plan for revenge so baroque as to be incomprehensible to the police.
In all his years as a criminal detective, he had never had such an intense need to understand. Criminal acts were always just the surface. Often this surface was tangled up with its own undergrowth. The surface and the subsoil were directly connected. But sometimes, once the surface of a crime had been cracked, chasms opened that no one could have imagined.
Writing many scenes from the points of view of the killer and the victims, Mankell lets the reader stay one step ahead of the cops -- a powerful device that had me urging Wallander to catch up, if only for my own protection. Anyone impatient with the proliferation of thrillers full of improbable coincidences, traffic-defying chases and heavy artillery endings will relish the quiet but satisfyingly creepy conclusion of The Fifth Woman. Enough questions -- about the killer and about Wallander -- are left to resonate that discerning crime fiction readers may be tempted to learn Swedish rather than wait for the rest of the series to be translated. | February 2001
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.