Now that the school year is underway again, I’m back to listening to audiobooks on my drive in. I started the year off with Henning Mankell’s crime novel The Dogs of Riga, which I snatched up at the library after remembering that Kate from Kate’s Book Blog praised this series highly. I think Kate was right — I enjoyed the book, both for its plot and for the main character, Kurt Wallender.
Wallender is a police officer in Sweden, and is the kind of character who seems much too nice and normal to get caught up in the kind of violent plots he finds himself enmeshed in. He comes across as unassuming — he’s not particularly ambitious; he’s competent but doesn’t seem brilliant at what he does, or at least he doesn’t think he’s brilliant at what he does; he can make mistakes and bumble along like any average person. And yet when he finds himself caught up in a plot involving international politics that could potentially put his life at risk — yes, he hesitates and agonizes over what to do, but ultimately he jumps into the fray.
The story begins with two men out on a ship who see two dead bodies afloat on a life raft; they pull the life raft closer to shore and then abandon it for the police to find. Wallender is assigned the case. Initially the case moves slowly, and Wallender has little idea where their few leads will take them. But then the dead men turn out to be of eastern European origin and are traced to Latvia, at which point the situation becomes an international one and suddenly much more complicated. Wallender travels to Latvia and has to negotiate a world that is entirely unfamiliar to him — it’s set during the time when the Soviet Union’s grip on eastern European countries is loosening and new forces are beginning to take its place. The situation is complicated further when Wallender falls in love with the beautiful widow of a Latvian police officer.
The Dogs of Riga offers a satisfying plot, but it also offers much to think about, particularly in Wallender’s musings about the way the world seems to be falling apart around him. The book has a mournful tone to it — Wallender himself is quietly sad — and much of this sadness comes from Wallender’s feeling that it no longer makes sense to be a police officer and to try to carry out justice in a society that cares about it so little. He toys with the idea of applying for a job as a security officer and leaving his police work behind because of this loss of confidence in society and because of the toll his job takes on him personally. He’s drawn back to the fight for order and justice, however; as much as he longs for a life that is simpler, he can’t quite leave his idealism behind. He’s a reluctant romantic — he wants a simpler, less complicated life, but at the same time when the chance comes along to be a hero and help a woman in distress, he can’t say no.
Listening to this book on audio worked particularly well because of the way the reader’s voice helped to create a sense of atmosphere. I respond more emotionally to a book when I’m listening to it, and this means I get caught up in the character development and the excitement of the plot twists and turns that much more. Now I’m left hoping that my library as more Mankell books on CD …