In Before the Frost (New Press, $24.95; translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg), Henning Mankell, the Swedish police-procedural master, moves further away than ever from Ed McBain's literary territory to compete more with Ingmar Bergman as an analyst of difficult, multi-layered, close relationships. Not that there's any shortage of violent crime in this tale of religious nutcases spreading bloody mayhem: When one poor soul is found, there's nothing left of her but her severed head and hands clasped as if in prayer.
For the first time, Mankell features Linda Wallander, daughter of his longtime depressive, divorced, lonely cop, Kurt Wallander. The young woman is a police officer in training. The father is very much a presence here, trying to guide and instruct the novice, who is brought into the murder case by a friend's disappearance. Father and daughter have been driving each other around the bend for too long to quit now. Linda tells a friend, "My dad and I are like two roosters fighting on a dung heap. The more we struggle, the more we get mired into the muck." On one occasion, she pops an ashtray off his noggin.
And yet, and yet. A mutual, loving respect grows between father and daughter as she sees he is really a wise investigator with a lot to teach her, and he accepts that underneath his daughter's moods and resentments and clumsiness is a woman of talent and sharp instincts. He tries to teach her about strata of facts in investigations. Wallander says, "If you winch yourself far enough down the well -- that's how I often think of my investigations -- you'll find the explanation." In Before the Frost, after many false starts, that's what she does.
No writer except Rebecca Pawel apparently has thought to set a mystery series in Spain in the early 1940s, though in her able hands the aftermath of the country's civil war seems like the most natural setting in the world. The Watcher in the Pine (Soho, $24) is the third Carlos Tejada Alonso y León mystery. And if the plotting is not as clever as you keep wanting it to be -- stumbling through the woods in the dark, Tejada finds a critical small clue dangling from a tree limb -- the social and political background is handled brilliantly. The main characters, Tejada and his wife, Elena, are appealingly full and human.
The couple are emblematic -- though not at all ham-handedly so -- of Spanish postwar socio-cultural divisions. An officer in the national-police Guardia, Carlos is from a fascist land-owning family. His new job in rural Potes is to establish the Franco regime's authority and deal with remaining pockets of "bandits." Elena is a former teacher and Republican whose sympathies in Potes gravitate to people who happen to hate her husband. Also, she is eight months pregnant.
Elena jokes that Carlos's mother views her as "the dangerous Red slut who entrapped her baby." But a murder and then a kidnapping in Potes demonstrate that the still raw feelings and conflicts of the war years aren't funny to people who don't happen to be in love with each other, and these feelings can have terrible consequences.
Pawel uses her understanding of the cultural and historical territory to move the narrative briskly and logically along. A clue indicating that some men had crossed the border from France was their possession of condoms, unavailable in Franco's Spain. One killing may have been made to look political but was really about a grudge, always a danger during war and its aftermath. A priest advising Carlos how to make his independent-minded wife toe the line declares that he must not send their baby away to his parents, because "if you crush her maternal feelings, a woman of her intelligence and education is likely to take refuge in exactly the sort of unfeminine intellectualism that you're trying to avoid."
Takes you back, no?
Richard Lipez writes private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.