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Mankell, Henning - 'The Fifth Woman' (translated by Steven T Murray)
Paperback: 592 pages (Dec. 2009) Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 0099546361

A Swedish woman receives a letter from Africa, sent by a female detective. Four nuns were violently killed by an unknown assailant, together with a fifth woman, who just happened to be visiting as she travelled around Africa. The fifth woman was her mother, Anna. The local police failed to investigate the deaths, and tried to hide the death of the Swedish woman. The female detective had been asked to destroy all her letters and her passport. But, as she has a conscience, she had had them translated to find out what they were about, and then decided to send them back to the daughter. The violent death and lack of police action leads Anna's daughter to take action in Sweden, exacting retribution on violent men that she knows have gone unpunished. She plans carefully, leaving almost no trace of her existence, making this a very difficult set of crimes to investigate.

Kurt Wallander is the policeman in charge of the investigation. In the first killing, Holger Erikson falls onto sharpened bamboo poles dug into a pit, and dies a slow painful death. In the second, Gosta Runfeldt goes missing, but the murderer keeps him in an oven in her house for two weeks gradually weakening him, until he is finally strangled and left tied to a tree. There is apparently no connection between the two victims, except the way in which they are brutally killed. Then there is a third killing and it starts to look like more are to come.

Is takes some time for Wallander to start to believe that he could have a female serial killer on his hands. But once he does, there is an interesting shift in focus as he starts to try to see the murders from a female point of view, relying on his talented female detective Ann-Britt Hoglund for help. It is a gruelling case for Wallander, not helped by the sudden and unexpected death of his father part way through. This is particularly sad for Wallander, as at the start of the book, he was on holiday in Rome with his father and really starting to make his peace with him at last.

There ensues painstaking work to try to find the killer and the motive for the apparently unrelated but particular slow and nasty killings of the male victims. The investigative process is beautifully described, with all the difficulties and frustrations encountered spelt out. It's a long book, at nearly 600 pages, and the BBC TV adaptation has lost a lot of this detail, and in some places significantly changed parts of the plot. For example, the motivation for the killer to start is the horrific death of her own mother in the book, but less satisfyingly, was just a death from cancer in the TV adaptation. The original motivation is much more satisfying, the book itself is an engrossing read, and if you enjoyed Wallander on TV, then you'll enjoy the book much more.

Read another review of THE FIFTH WOMAN.

Michelle Peckham, England
April 2010

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 18/04/2010 11:45