Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

“It again occurred to Wallander that a change was taking place in Sweden.”

A friend sent me Faceless Killers, the first Kurt Wallander mystery from Swedish author Henning Mankell. Mankell is poised to become much more widely read in North America thanks to the US release of Wallander, a DVD featuring Mankell’s fictional detective and starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role.

When I arrive at an author who has produced a number of series novels, I prefer to start at the beginning, if possible, and in the case of Mankell’s lonely detective, Wallander, this first novel introduces a forty-something, divorced, lonely, out-of-shape and overweight detective.

The novel begins in a remote area of Sweden when an elderly farmer finds that his equally elderly neighbour, Johannes Lovgren has been beaten and tortured to death, and his wife, Maria, is dying. Wallander and his detectives arrive on the scene and are horrified by the violence used against this elderly couple. With very few clues, the investigation begins, and Wallander quickly discovers that Johannes Lovgren led a secret life that may have led to his death.

faceless killersFaceless Killers begins strongly, but Wallander’s dogged pursuit of the killers is derailed when someone leaks that a ‘foreigner’ may be responsible for the brutal murders. Right wing groups fed up with Sweden’s open door policy to asylum seekers decide to take matters into their own hands and threaten to begin killing refugees in retribution. While this sub plot serves as an excellent segue into Sweden’s domestic troubles, it also subsumes the murder of the Lovgrens. When Wallander turns his attention back to the murder of the Lovgrens, the crime has become secondary instead of remaining in the foreground.

With this loss of momentum, the tale then stalls right along with the murder investigation. As a result, when the Lovgren murders are finally solved, there’s an almost anticlimactic feeling.

Wallander is an interesting character, and certainly strong enough to support a series of novels. Lonely and career-driven, he keeps hours that are contraindicated to any sort of possible relationship and his eating habits leave a lot to be desired. While Wallander struggles in his professional life with colleagues and bureaucracy, in his personal life his relationship with his father is problematic. Wallander’s father, sinking into dementia faces his son with bitter recriminations at every meeting, and the result is that Wallander’s half-hearted attempts, ill-formed by vague notions of duty, peter out rapidly. And this, of course, compounds the problems in the already-troubled relationship.

One of the best features of the book is its introduction to Sweden’s refugee policy. Wallander, who keeps his opinions about immigration to himself for the most part, encounters the lackadaisical system of accounting which favours those “opportunists” who enter the country right along with the refugees. I tended to idealize Sweden, so that’s over. On another note, the country’s weather plays a prominent role in the story. Wallander is always venturing out in below-freezing temperatures for stake outs, and consequently, he’s perpetually frozen & fighting off a cold.

The first novel in any detective series serves to set the stage for further encounters. Henning Mankell effectively creates a believable character and believable crimes right along with a believable investigation. But the novel loses its steam as it leaves the initial double murders to investigate the ripple-out effects caused by right wing nut jobs. The first novel–the stage setter in a detective series is often the weakest one, so perhaps that’s true in this case. I prefer my crime novels to keep me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, and while we all know that investigations on real-life often stall and stagnate, on paper this can lose the reader’s attention and weaken the sense of urgency. As a result, while I enjoyed the novel, it was  not a riveting read as the subplots reared and took over. While I would try the second book in the series, as a series detective, Wallander wasn’t much fun to be around; I prefer Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Hector Belascoaran and Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano–fictional characters who possess a lively sense of humour.

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2 Comments

Filed under Mankell Henning

2 responses to “Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

  1. Interesting, great cover there by the way.

    I watched the Wallander tv series, and enjoyed it enough I’d watch more but wasn’t wholly blown away. I’ll probably give this a try, you’ve not put me off and I read international crime as much for setting as for plot (probably more), but pacing is critical.

    But as you say, the first is often weakest, I’ve read several Rankin’s and the first Rebus novel was easily the weakest of them so this may be similar.

    Food for thought anyway, Jar City is probably my next foray into crime, though we’ll see.

  2. Guy A. Savage

    Glad to hear I hadn’t put you off because I wouldn’t want to do that with this book–that said, I didn’t rave about it as the book’s structure (plot, sub-plot) took away a lot of the novel’s initial tension.

    As the first crime faded in the plot, the imperative to solve faded too.

    Yes, the cover is great, isn’t it? I came away from the book thinking it must be a drag to be a policeman in Sweden–all those night-long stake outs with icicles dripping from your nose….

    I haven’t seen the series yet. Soon.

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