I was wrong about the novel character’s exact identity; Mankell’s hangman was a fellow called Davenport. As for the connection between the prologue and the rest of The Return of the Dancing Master, my movie association did function as a helpful template in discovering one of Mankell's crucial themes, the need for impartial justice.
Davenport moves covertly between England and Germany executing war criminals in a humane but just manner. The hangman admits that the horrible crimes for which the prisoners were punished were not unique to Nazis or Germans but could under similar circumstances be committed anywhere including Britain or the U.S. This episode is never mentioned again but its dissimilarity to the events that took place in the isolated village of Härjedalen, Sweden should not be neglected by the reader.
The opening scenario depicts a retribution neither swift nor clean. Herbert Molin, an apparently bland individual with hobbies including jigsaw puzzles and tango dancing with a broomstick mannequin, is mutilated, dragged through the cold snow and left dead outside his cabin. Molin’s back story identifies him as a retired ex-detective from the more populated area of Boras. He is an insomniac capable of sleeping only in the day; at night he is haunted by his past.
Upon hearing of this gruesome death, Sefan Lindman, a young detective formerly mentored by Molin, volunteers to lend a hand in the investigation. Not unlike his elderly counterpart, Sefan is paranoid, closed off to communication with others, and unconsciously haunted by family secrets. Complicating Stefan's sleuthing efforts is his recent diagnosis of mouth cancer which distracts him with a dread of death and social shame about how this disease may signify more about him than he imagines.
The themes of banal normalcy, with an underside of paranoia, cover up, and an urgent desire for security, leak into the Swedish national character in the form of an insidious nationalist group called the Strong Swedish Foundation. This apparently conventional group comprised of elderly housewives and successful business people surpass the more overtly dangerous Aryan brotherhood and skinheads in their poisonous effect on society. In this instance the aphorism that “evil triumphs when the good do nothing” is intensified and comes to mean, a la lyricist Bruce Cockburn, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” Normal made Nazi Germany such a hideous triumph, normal made Molin a frightened puppet of ideology, and normal made Sefan emotionally closed off and ashamed of his weakness.
The extremely violent, out of the ordinary act of retribution that initiates The Return of the Dancing Master administers a shock that unearths the normal, exposing the perpetrator and his or her motives. In short, applying justice impartially with humane empathy but accuracy is at the heart of this excellent novel.