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BOOK REVIEW

Mankell returns with a new crime buster

The Return of the Dancing Master, By Henning Mankell, The New Press, 392 pp., $24.95

Most fans of crime novels know Henning Mankell from the nine books featuring Kurt Wallander, a tired but trustworthy police investigator in Ystad, Sweden. But with Wallander approaching retirement, Mankell has looked for younger blood to deal with the increasingly blood-soaked goings-on in Sweden. The next Wallander novel will feature Linda Wallander, Kurt's daughter, who is going to follow in his footsteps.

In the meantime, in "The Return of the Dancing Master," we have Stefan Lindman, a young policeman who is looking for something to take his mind off the fact that he has a cancerous growth on his tongue. When he discovers that a retired colleague has been the victim of a grisly murder, he goes off to investigate.

"Grisly murder" is actually redundant with Mankell. The often innocent victims in his novels are scalped, burned to a crisp, and otherwise mutilated beyond recognition. For all of that, though, these books inhabit a completely different world -- in terms of geography and literature -- from Hannibal the Cannibal. Mankell weaves a mournful spell through all his mysteries by adopting a calm, dispassionate tone that artfully underlines an abiding humanism for psychic as well as physical suffering.

Mankell is married to Ingmar Bergman's daughter and while it would be facile to make too much of that connection, it is worth noting that the melancholy that suffuses the great film director's work also lifts Mankell's plots above Hollywood heroics. In this book, we are faced with a network of neo-Nazis but they're neither neo-Mengeles nor youth-brigade skinheads, which makes them frightening in different ways. It's their ice-cold logic more than their cold-blooded murders that sends a shiver down the spine.

Not that the rest of the world is so wonderful. The first of the Nazi victims elicits sympathy as he's being stalked by an unknown assailant who whips him to death and then dances him around the room in a tango. And from Mankell's description, it's hard to tell, at first, whether the victim is an ex-Nazi or existential everyman: "He had been tired all of his adult life. He had no idea how he'd gotten by. Looking back, he could recognize only an endless string of days that he'd somehow muddled through."

Meanwhile, our hero, if that's what he is, is muddling through in a different way. Lindman follows the trail of the murder not out of any great love for the man or out of any passion for the law, but because it's a relief not to have to confront his cancer. This gives him a devil-may-care attitude toward the niceties of police procedures, but he is simply letting fate propel him forward. Goodness, as well as evil, has its banal side.

Along the way he finds that Naziism in Sweden and Scandinavia during the Hitler years was more widespread than he (and we) had been led to believe. And with the rising tide in anti-immigration and anti-Semitic attitudes on the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler's legacy isn't dead yet.

Lindman isn't as developed a character as Wallander and Mankell resorts at times in "The Return of the Dancing Master" to the kind of Hollywood flourish he doesn't need. Still, the novel features the same masterful sense of atmosphere -- which is reminiscent of the Maj Sjowall-Per Wahloo procedurals as well as his father-in-law's films -- that Mankell brings to all his writing.

Mankell makes it obvious that dispassion and lack of passion are two entirely different things.

Ed Siegel can be reached at globe.com.

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