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Righting the wronged

The White Lioness, Henning Mankell, Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Vintage Crime: 440 pp., $13 paper Sidetracked, Henning Mankell, Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray, Vintage Crime: 422 pp., $13 paper Death by Hollywood: A Novel, Steven Bochco, Random House: 280 pp., $24.95 Lost Light, Michael Connelly, Little Brown: 362 pp., $25.95

August 24, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Henning MANKELL is, in the first place, a teacher who writes in parables, whose mysteries sometimes disguise and sometimes proclaim his views about Sweden and the wider world where things are very wrong or not quite right. Published in 1993, one year before South Africa's first free elections, "The White Lioness," for example, is more about the wrongs of a situation where blacks live under the white man's yoke than about Sweden, where half of the action takes place.

One murder, then another, then another, in Ystad and places nearby bring Inspector Kurt Wallander into play and frazzle him. An estate agent, the happily married mother of two small daughters, disappears only to be found shot at the bottom of a well. How can anyone, muses Wallander, "keep on believing in a good, all-powerful God when their mother and wife has been murdered and dropped into a well?" Wallander does not believe in God, but he believes in his duty to hunt down criminals. And, although he fusses too much about killing "another human being" when he has to -- and an evil one at that -- he remains focused on the job, solves the case and permits the South African authorities, or at least the good guys among them, to foil an assassination plot that would plunge the country into turmoil and chaos.

In Mankell's hands, a Swedish police investigation devolves into a crazy, mazy, shifty, tortuous tale of political activity interspersed with edifying passages about the problems of a South Africa that has been turned on its head in the last 10 years.

"Sidetracked," published two years later, is less packed with platitudes. A demented serial killer is murdering men -- bad men -- in horrifying ways, then scalping them and vanishing until he strikes again. Who is the killer, what are his motives, what links his apparently disparate victims?

"Nothing like this has ever occurred in Sweden before," and Ystad police are going around in circles. The biggest manhunt in their history leads to one blind alley, one dead end, one sidetrack after the other. While they tread water, Mankell fills us in about a country that pulled itself out of material poverty only to plunge into the spiritual poverty of the welfare state and its eroded present. "When we got rid of the old society where families stuck together, we forgot to replace it with something else."

Police, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times. It's almost shameful, we are told, to be a policeman. Stockholm mandarins think that the country can get along without them. Crime is on the rise, but police are being cut back and people worry more about how prisoners are being treated than about those who put them in prison or fail to do so. Policemen go unarmed most of the time. But they know the Swedish poets, and they communicate in structured sentences with hardly an expletive that needs to be deleted. Still and all, a country whose main concern appears to be World Cup soccer, where murders are big news and citizens are shocked by doings we pretty much take for granted during our evening news, doesn't seem bad to live in. Especially since Wallander, in his dogged way, will bring the perp to book.

Steven Bochco's "Death by Hollywood" is not a mystery: What crimes there are take place up front. It's not a detective story: There's no villain to spot and little mystification to puzzle out. And the suspense is minimal. So what is it? A novel, the cover tells us. And the indictment of a dream factory that we know well for having grazed on its products but with which we are not nearly as familiar as the author, who enumerates some of the charges against it.

Bochco, creator of hit TV shows such as "NYPD Blue," lays out the lowdown on Hollywood: desperate wannabes; seductive, paranoid, narcissistic actors; ego-challenged celebrities; agents, no more than well-paid pimps; writers, like actors, big, self-centered, spoiled-rotten babies; producers you love to hate; wives of fat slobs looking for little somethings on the side. One giant dysfunctional family. Throw in a screenwriter squeezed by writer's block who spies a murder through his $4,000 Bushnell XR90 electronic telescope ("writers are by definition voyeurs") and thinks it would be a great hook for a script; add a policeman who likes Columbo because he uses his brains, not his fists, and who grabs the opportunity to turn scriptwriter and join the club of the rich and famous; then stir and drop in some olives.

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