Faceless Killers  – ★★★
This is the first book in the Kurt Wallander detective series penned by Henning Mankell, a Swedish author, who in 1992 won for this book the first ever Glass Key Award, given to authors from the Nordic countries. The translation of 1997 is by Steven T. Murray. In this story, Inspector Wallander is called upon to investigate the savage double murder in Lunnarp, Skåne. A husband and wife (Johannes and Maria Lövgren) are found brutally killed with mysterious clues left behind, such as the fact that the killers allegedly fed the farm horse before they left. The investigation team soon notice that the area where the murders happened is very isolated, relatively peaceful, and they have no immediate suspects. As the investigation continues, Inspector Wallander confronts clues that point to the possibility of foreign nationals being responsible for the murders, and then have to deal with the hate crime and racially-motivated attacks. If the first part of this book is this exciting mystery-thriller where we also delve into the character of Wallander and uncover the extent of his personal problems, the second part of the book is a less compelling narrative of an investigation of another crime which leads to a predictable conclusion.
The first part of this thriller is this intriguing read, with Mankell preparing to linger before moving forward with the plot to give a sense of place to his story, as well as being mindful of presenting Wallander as a sympathetic human being. Firstly, the book could not have started more interestingly, and we first uncover the perspective of Lövgren’s neighbour who awakes during the night for no apparent reason. Upon the finding of the murder, the investigation then uncovers all these strange clues and we start to wonder whether there is more to the victims than appears at first glance. Secondly, Mankell is great at giving a sense of place to his story, and the readers will be interested to get to know rural Sweden which awaits snowfall, and there is a mention of the famous-to-the-region Ale’s Stones and Glimmingehus. The third point of interest is the personality of Inspector Wallander, and how his own personal problems influence the investigation of the murders. Wallander is a very imperfect character. His wife left him and his estranged daughter hardly talks to him. To lessen the feelings of loneliness, he overworks, sometimes drinks, and hopelessly dreams to get close to his beautiful, but already happily-married boss. To top it all, Wallander’s father shows signs of confusion, meaning Alzheimer’s disease.
The story seems to be set at the time when that region in Sweden experiences anxiety regarding the future “modernisation” of the region and about migrants arriving, and what it all will mean to the past modes of life. It is especially fascinating to read how Inspector Wallander reflects on the changes he sees in the region. For example, there is a line: “the differences between the big cities and the countryside have been almost erased. Organised crime is widespread in Malmö. The open borders and all the ferries coming in are like candy for the underworld” [Mankell, 1991/1997: 140]. Mankell wrote his book in 1991, only four years prior to Sweden joining the EU, and, in his narrative, he may really be reflecting some of the fears in Sweden regarding the changes to come (already happening).
It is also interesting to read how Wallander reflects on the changing nature of the police work in the region. There are no longer gentlemanly thieves roaming about, and there is a rise of a new type of ruthless and unapologetic criminals: “a new world had emerged, and he had not noticed it. As a policeman, he still lived in another, older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new? How would he deal with the great uneasiness he felt at these changes, at so much happening so fast?” [Mankell, 1991/1997: 245]. There is also interesting police “wisdom” to be found in the story: “There’s no such thing as a murderer’s face…You imagine something: a profile, a hairline, a set of the jaw. But it never matches up” [Mankell, 1991/1997: 283], and “justice doesn’t only mean that the people who commit crimes are punished. It also means that we can never give up seeking the truth” [Mankell, 1991/1997: 290].
Unfortunately, the second half of the book is less intriguing and more predictable. If the first part built up nicely this mystery around the Lövgren murders, the second part is a bit of a disappointment because it no longer concerns itself with this mystery, but with the investigation of a completely different crime. This is where the novel becomes almost mediocre. We have an interesting perspective on the political situation regarding refugees in the region, but we also have this now purely police thriller where we get too much of the police work and procedures and not enough intrigue and thrills. And if only this narrative about police work was enlightening or fascinating. It seems that the case is being solved solely on the basis of unexpected case breakthroughs, rather than due to any input (or skill) from Wallander, our investigation hero. Even though the second half is fast-paced, the plot also soon runs out of ideas.
Faceless Killers may be an interesting read and is definitely a better-than-average crime thriller which builds a sense of mystery early on, and tries to give a sense of place to the story, as well as pay attention to the inner turmoil of its main character. However, the second half of the book is almost at cross-purposes and slides into an unimaginative and finally predictable narrative.