Bloody hands

After eight novels featuring troubled Swedish police Inspector Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankel has come up with another deeply depressed copper, young Stefan Lindman, in The Return of the Dancing Master (Harvill).

On sick leave before radiation begins for a tumour on his tongue, Lindman becomes obsessed with the horrible murder of his mentor, Herbert Molin, and travels to the scene of the crime — a cabin in a forest in northern Sweden, far even from the tiny, claustrophobic villages that populate this inhospitable area. Every time Lindman tries to leave he stumbles over another piece of the puzzle, largely Nazi-era artefacts and unreconstructed fascists. Fascinating stuff.

The sharp edges of cynical Venetian police Inspector Aurelio Zen are still much in evidence in Medusa (Faber & Faber), even though he’s now gone in for a touch of domesticity — he’s moved in with the lady he met on the beach in an earlier book.

In this one, Austrian potholers have come upon a well-preserved body at the bottom of a shaft in a network of abandoned tunnels in the Italian Alps. The military seizes the body, one old soldier is blown up in his BMW, another disappears, and Zen is brought in to find out what’s being covered up. Author Michael Dibdin toyed with killing Zen off two books ago; when he brought him back to life in And Then You Die, it wasn’t quite the same. Medusa is still not as good as the earlier books, but it’s good enough.

For a country as violent as South Africa, you’d think we could come up with many murderers who did in their loved ones for gain — but the eminent Ellison Kahn has more English murderers than South African in Bloody Hand! Wills and Crime (Siber Ink). Still, he does go beyond Daisy de Melker (who is, of course, included). There’s Margaret Elizabeth Rheeder, for example, who fed her husband ant poison, and Barend Johannes Jacobus du Toit, who was jailed for the beating to death of his frail wife, which he had claimed was done by housebreakers. The short pieces are elegant; the longer ones dwell too much on legal points.

When the Cold War ended, one wondered what John le Carré was going to write about. He came up with several answers, among them unscrupulous drug companies in The Constant Gardener and his part-memoir, part-novel, A Perfect Spy. His newest book, Absolute Friends (Hodder & Stoughton), looked promising: the hero, Ted Mundy, is a tall, over-polite Englishman born in Pakistan in the 1940s to an alcoholic military father who is sent home in disgrace.

Decades later, Mundy has gone back to the ambience he loves; he is living in an immigrant quarter of Munich with his Turkish girlfriend and her son, attending the local mosque, speaking out in coffee shops against the war in Iraq. But soon an East German friend of 40 years’ standing shows up, and we’re back to the Cold War — and there we stay for most of the book. Nothing new here, except the protagonist, a memorable addition to Le Carré’s gallery of accidental spies.

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