The first born novel is a well worked piece of fiction which reinforces the feeling that when the investigation itself is not particularly mind catching, the creation of a good character is. Harry Hole, Harry Bosch, Kurt Wallander – the strength of the character will always carry them throughout. That rule of thumb need not apply here – Faceless Killers is for the reader an investigatory delight.
Wallander was around long before the astronomical explosion of interest in Scandinavian crime fiction primed by Stieg Larsson and has obviously benefited from it. The series is reported to have sold over 35 millions copies. But there is more to the book than it simply occupying the same literacy genre. I read The Inspector And Silence for this reason but was left underwhelmed. Dull but worthy.
In this first outing by Mankell, the main player - a cop - has a complicated family relationship: the Wallander character finds himself in constant friction with his father, an artist, who resented him for choosing policing as a career. His creative brush perhaps at odds with the deadening thud of the truncheon. The dad is a challenging man with a sense of entitlement. Linda Wallander, his daughter, is demanding in a different sort of way from his father but is rarely around when he needs her. She tired suicide when younger and that enhances his nervousness.
Wallander is heading for the divorce courts. It is a cop thing, seemingly. Long hours away from home, taking the job home with them when they do cross the family portal, is not conducive to harmonious matrimony. District Attorney Anette Brolin is the target of his unrequited amorous intent. The complication is her own marriage. Like so many other cops in novels he has a fondness for the booze although not to the extent Harry Hole does. The Oslo beer swilling gumshoe has at time been incapacitated by it. Wallander is not beyond being pulled over, collegiality allowing him to evade what mortals lesser than police would routinely spend a night in the cells for.
January, mid winter, it is seriously cold. Kurt Wallander is summoned to a crime scene at rural Lenarp. At that point there is only one murder to investigate but that would quickly become two. The scene confronting the Ystad Police Department is described by a colleague as being "like an American movie." Mankell's pen manages to make the temperature drop in the room of the reader. Johannes and Maria Lövgren are the victims, their deaths striking Wallander as exceptionally brutal. The husband is tortured and the wife strangled to a point where survival was impossible. Maria, however, before expiring, managed to whisper the word "foreign."
It is a word Wallander might have wished he had never picked it up. He could have pretended he heard her say "forlorn" in her dying testimony, given the loneliness of dying. The police desire to get around using accurate language has foreshadowed recent events where everything possible has been done to muzzle what the PC do not want described. In the UK, Asian rape gangs are just gangs. The pressure is on journalists to report that something happened to somebody and another did it. See no colour, hear no colour, speak no colour.
This is where the subtheme of the novel is centred. Mankell is asking questions of Sweden’s ability to adjust in a changing world, where immigration has tossed policing into a foreign land. The problems Wallander faced were Mankell’s way of raising uncomfortable questions about how a smugness leads to societal complacency and misplaced outrage when the bottom falls out of it all.
Trying to keep the genie in the bottle did not work for long. Soon enough the word was on the street. A refugee camp is torched and a Somalian man is gunned down. Threatening phone calls from the racist right are made. The pressure is on to get a result which continues to defy investigators. Johannes unlike Maria was no innocent. He had a past immersed in Nazism. Then he had a child he had not revealed to Maria. Might that lead somewhere? From lead to lead until the circle is complete and the investigation is back where it started.
The solving of the crime was never uncomplicated and there were a few chicanes before the terminus is reached. It is never over until The Dogs of Riga start barking.
Henning Mankell, 1991, Faceless Killers. Publisher Vintage. ISBN-13: 978-0099571827
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.