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The Lonely Dead by Michael Marshall

Publisher: HarperCollins ISBN: 0007163940

Reviewed by Paul Kane, New Mystery Reader

The Lonely Dead follows on from where Marshall’s first novel, The Straw Men, left off.  As with many sequels, the story starts slowly and is quite bewildering at first.  There are a number of narrative streams that Marshall has to pick up once more, or set in place anew.  Soon, though, as these myriad streams and tributaries interconnect to form a larger current, the pace of the novel picks up.  And it carries a real momentum.  This is a richly rewarding and deeply satisfying thriller. 

It’s an almost impossible task to summarise the plot and all the various sub-plots in The Lonely Dead (and anyway you wouldn’t want me to ruin it for you, would you?), but let's make a stab at it anyway.  Maybe a brief sketch will convey something of the flavour of the novel. 

Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA operative, is now on the run and is seeking to make contact with his twin brother Paul, a serial killer who goes by the name of “The Upright Man”.  Meanwhile, both are being hunted by the Straw Men, an ancient order of serial killers.  We learn that these guys are behind all kinds of heinous crimes, including (Marshall gives a knowing wink here) the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Here is how John Zandt, rogue cop, explains to Ward the rationale for the existence of the Straw Men: 

Sacrifice is killing for magic purpose, and serial murder is a misplaced version of this instinct.  They're turning teenage girls and lost boys into symbols of the "gods" … and their whole M.O. is a curdled version of an ancient ritual. (p.309)   

Conspiracy theory here assumes the status of myth, and serves as an explanation of the violence in the world.  Perhaps it makes as much sense as anything else! 

Alongside the intricate plotlines, and the skill with which Marshall tells his story, there are other good things in the novel.   

The action sequences are imbued with a thrilling, excruciating suspense, whether what is being described is an urban shootout or the climactic hunt for a serial killer in the mountains of the Pacific North West. 

There are fine touches of black humour throughout, a sprinkling of offbeat similes (A modest example: "The man gazed back at her as if she was the vacation roster for a company he didn't work for."), and weird digressions on toes ("they could have been the big boys, the much feted opposables …"), computers and capitalism.  Finally, there is a choice piece of Fortean erudition concerning Roanoke, England's first attempt, in 1584, to establish a colony in America.  Supposedly, this holds the secret of the origin of the Straw Men …

By integrating an elaborate but believable conspiracy theory into the police procedural, Michael Marshall has injected new blood into the serial killer thriller and given it a new lease of life.  The Lonely Dead carries all the paranoid ambience of an early Alan J. Pakula movie.  After reading it, America seems once more to be a dark and dangerous

 

 

 

 

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell

Dancing with a New Partner

Reviewed by Stan Izen for New Mystery Reader

I don’t know about you but character is the main reason I read mysteries.  I am more interested in the ups and downs of the hero as he or she chases the bad guy, interacts with colleagues, and tries to live life, than I am with the questions of who the criminal is and why or how he killed his victim.  So, when the author of a successful mystery series, one that is widely enjoyed and respected, deserts his hero and strikes out into new territory, a faithful reader, like me, has the right to feel let down.  One has the right to be skeptical about the author’s new creation, and, in fact, to allow his disappointment to prevent his giving the new work a chance.  

In the case of Henning Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master that would be a mistake.  As wonderful as Mankell’s Wallander series is, and it is one of the best currently being written, this book is just as good.  From the start, we are  engaged by a character who is complex, vulnerable, and suffering a crisis in his life; in other words, a person who is immediately appealing.  I liked Mankell’s new character right from the start and wanted to know everything about him; what were his interests, did he have a family, a girlfriend, was he a good cop?  The story, too, is compelling. It is tense, complicated, and immensely satisfying.  Several nights I had to fight off sleep to read just a few more pages.  I quite literally did not want this book to end.

The Return of the Dancing Master introduces us to Stefan Lindman, a 37 year old policeman in Borås in Sweden.  When we first meet Lindman he is going to his doctor to hear the verdict as to whether or not he has cancer of the tongue.  He is terrified (who wouldn’t be?) and devises a plan for going to the doctor’s office.

            “He’d devised a plan during the night.  A plan that was also an invocation.  He wouldn’t go directly up the hill to the hospital.  He would make sure that he had enough time not only to take a roundabout route, but also to circle the hospital twice.  All the time he would search for signs that the news he was going to receive from the doctor would be positive.”

This unexpected quirkiness is captivating.  I desperately wanted to know what would happen next, a feeling that continued throughout the book.  After reading these opening paragraphs, I was hooked on Lindman. 

The news is not good; he has cancer.  He is to start radiation therapy in three weeks.  His fear of all he would have to endure in the months ahead, his fear of possibly dying, are the backdrop to the entire book.  To settle his nerves after talking to the doctor, he has coffee in the hospital cafeteria and reads in the local newspaper that a retired former police colleague of his was found murdered, a man named Molin.  He and Molin had worked together for a number of years but were not close.  During the course of their partnership, Lindman came to realize that Molin lived in fear of something or somebody, but he never knew what. 

Lindman called the investigating detective in the northern town Molin had retired to, to tell him what he knew of Molin, and thus started his own involvement in the solution of this crime that did not end until all the facts were known.  Lindman’s participation starts fitfully because he has a girlfriend at home who wants him to return to her and the local police do not really want an outsider meddling in their case.  However, he is so smart and helpful that after a while he becomes part of the team, becoming particularly close to a local cop with the unlikely name of Giuseppe Larsson.  The circumstances of Molin’s death were both peculiar and grisly, to say the least.  He was found in woods near his house, naked and beaten so severely that some of his skin had been stripped away.  In the house, bloody footprints were found that traced out the steps to a tango!  Lindman and the other policemen eventually realize that Molin’s death is related to both Nazi Germany and modern neo-Nazi groups in Sweden. 

Before I read this book I expected Lindman to be a younger version of Wallander, Mankell’s other protagonist, but, now, I’m not so sure.  Wallander is a middle-aged, lonely, tired, melancholy man.  (Why is it, by the way, that sadness is so attractive in a hero?)  His wife has left him and he rarely sees his daughter.  He has no close friends, even among his fellow police officers.  He is, however, an excellent cop.  He is smart and persistent, and, while he is unsure that catching bad guys will make the world a better place, he keeps on  doing just that, although hints of retirement have been aired in recent books.  Lindman, on the other hand, is normally a cheerful guy we are told, when he isn’t scared of dying from cancer.  He, too, is a good policeman but we get the impression that, unlike Wallander, he believes in the importance and effectiveness of the job.  Lindman has a longstanding relationship with a woman he seems to care about, although doubts surface occasionally. 

What I like so much about Mankell’s writing is its realism.  Some detective fiction seems to be written with one eye to future sales to TV or the movies, featuring a hero who is too smart, too erudite, too sophisticated, too good-looking or too (fill in the blank with a number of other traits) to be true.  The rare book dealer who solves crimes on the side, the priest who tracks down murderers, and the cliché-ridden private-eye may be fun to read but their cartoonish quality leaves one unsatisfied; it is too meager a diet.  I prefer a smart but vulnerable character, like Lindman or Wallander, a hero I can identify with or aspire to, one who lives in a dirty, mean, crime-ridden world a lot like my own.  The congruence between these fictional worlds and mine allows their truths to give me insight into my life. 

After thirty years of reading mysteries, it comes down to this.  I want to read about a detective who is complicated, thoughtful, honest, and smart.  Someone who faces challenges and doesn’t back down.  I want a sense of real life with all the pain, disappointment, and struggle that can entail.  Few authors deliver the right combination, can hit the correct tone.  Henning Mankell does it every time, regardless of who his main character is.