The Fifth Woman

May 26, 2015

Henning Mankell, the author of the Kurt Wallander mysteries, sets The Fifth Woman in the fall of 1994. The hero and his police colleagues are still recovering from a series of grisly murders that had been committed the previous summer (see Sidetracked). When a new murder unfolds – an elderly man/bird watcher/poet dies impaled on bamboo spikes – the first question they ask is, “could it be happening again?”

Clearly, something is wrong in Sweden. The police, the community, even the murderer, feel that society is coming apart. If the police can’t set things right, then maybe it is up to members of the public to take matters into their own hands and avenge criminal wrongdoing. But the idea of citizens acting as vigilantes, whether they are sharpening bamboo poles or pulling confused drivers from their cars and beating them to a pulp, is unacceptable to the overburdened, and sometimes ineffective, police. As Detective Birch remembers deep in Ch. 25, “He [an old police commissioner] saw all of this coming. I remember that he used to talk to us younger detectives and warn us that everything was going to get a lot tougher. The violence would get more widespread and more brutal. He said that this was because Sweden’s prosperity was a well-camouflaged quagmire. The decay was underneath it all. He even took the time to put together demographic analyses and explain the connections between various types of crime. He was that rare sort of man who never spoke ill of anyone. He could be critical about politicians, and he could use his arguments to crush suggested changes to the police force. But he never doubted that there were good, albeit confused, intentions behind them. He used to say that good intentions that are not clothed in reason lead to greater disasters than actions built on ill will. I didn’t understand it back then. But I do now.”

One need not dwell on the “good intentions” of the Swedish vigilante groups that spring up in the middle of the story. While their intentions might clothed in a bit of half-baked reason, a simpler explanation for their actions is that random, brutal violence breeds fear, and fear breeds vigilantes.

Fear, however, does not seem to motivate the murderer in The Fifth Woman. She (personal note: I was convinced that ‘she’ was a cross-dressing ‘he’ until almost the final page) is determined to re-balance the skewed scales of justice by her own hands. She is certainly not afraid. And she is not striking at random. Whether her actions are “clothed in reason” or “built on ill will” or, perhaps, both, is something that I will leave for others to decide.

Changing topics … I first read this book at the end of summer 2014, but I didn’t have a chance to write down anything about it then so I decided to reread it this spring. I was completely unprepared for the experience of rereading a mystery novel. I would have thought that knowing the outcome in advance would have made the second reading a dreary exercise, but this was not at all the case. Unlike the first reading, which was a hot, hasty pursuit of the killer and the unlocking of her secrets, the second reading was a more leisurely stroll. Why were the police having such a hard time getting a handle on these crimes? How did the criminal investigation affect Wallander’s personal relationships and vice versa? The emotional swings in Wallander’s life affected my view more this time around, and to my surprise, these swings intensified the emotional aspects of the criminal investigation.

I was also surprised by the parallels I discovered between the police detective and the killer. Both felt that the murdered men had committed heinous crimes. Both were committed to setting things right and establishing order. But there the similarity ended. The killer leads a highly ordered private life and feels no compunctions about committing the most violent crimes in order to extend her sense of order to the rest of Sweden. Order for Wallander, on the other hand, is a zero-sum game. The more he exerts himself in the pursuit of criminals, the more his private life descends into chaos. I keep wishing that Wallander will be able to bring more order into his personal life, but after seeing the structured life that the killer leads, I wonder if chaos might not be a good thing in a policeman or woman.

Finally, the role of revenge changed from the first reading to the second. It is made clear from the very beginning of the story that the killer is seeking revenge for unspecified events and this dominated my thinking during my first reading. Unfortunately, this approach to the story proved quite frustrating. I was kept wondering why this killer felt sufficiently wounded/anointed to become an Avenging Angel until the end of the book, and even then I wasn’t satisfied. During my second reading, however, I saw that this was not a classic revenge story at all. More important was the police point of view: they largely operate in the dark, making speculations, chasing down hypotheses. As the leader of the investigation, Kurt is terrified that he is pointing his colleagues in the wrong direction. At the same time, the police must reassure a fearful public that the killer will be brought to justice.


One Response to “The Fifth Woman”

  1. […] apart. The story begins at least one year or more beyond the previous hunt for the killer in The Fifth Woman and the intervening months have been quiet ones for Wallander. Work has not been oppressive, but his […]

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