RogerBW's Blog

Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell 19 December 2019

1991 police procedural mystery; first of Mankell's novels of Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad police. Two elderly people living in a remote farmhouse are tortured to death; nothing's obviously missing, but someone fed the horse before they left. And a couple of clues point at foreigners in Sweden… (Translated by Steven T. Murray; original title Mördare utan ansikte.)

Well, they say that one's detective hero should have quirks and fallibilities to make him more human than the "thinking machine" of much early mystery fiction, and Wallander's not short of them. He likes listening to opera, especially Callas; he eats too much junk food and drinks too much whiskey; his wife left him three months ago; some years ago his daughter attempted suicide out of the blue and he doesn't know where she is now; his ageing father is increasingly unable to look after himself. Also he sees all women as either lust-objects or caretakers, but I'm not sure that that's intended as a quirk as much as simply Mankell's vision of the way the world works; certainly there's nobody here expressing a contrary view.

It's a long and often dreary investigation, mostly plodding police work as the detectives bash their heads against a lack of evidence. As rumours get out about the foreigners, there's violence against refugee camps including a murder and consequent investigation which takes up much of the central section of the book; this culminates in a car chase which feels at times as though it was inserted to spice things up a bit, since it's really not Mankell's natural voice.

This is probably more true to complex police work in the real world than most police procedural stories: after the initial flurry of activity leads to nothing, it's half a year later when a new lead comes to light, and there's a lot of coincidence involved in exploiting it. And plenty of questions are never answered.

I found that the setting didn't really come to life for me. There's frequent mention of the cold wind and the temperature in general, but it's never a factor in the plot. I've driven several times through Skåne and stayed in Malmö and Lund, and the prevailing impression I get is of endless stretches of flat farmland with minimal relief, much like driving through the Dakotas; but there's none of that sense of emptiness and openness here. Any rural area with medium-sized towns and some open country in it could have served as well.

It's all right, if not outstanding. I found Wallander a bit too self-sabotaging and unconscious of his own flaws for my taste, but I'm likely to read another of these.

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