Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. To say that Henning Mankell has had a profound influence on crime fiction is perhaps an understatement. His Kurt Wallander has won millions of fans, and it’s been hard on all of us who love that character that Mankell has closed that chapter of his writing life. This series would not be a real survey of crime fiction novels without a close look of at least some of Mankell’s work so let’s turn today’s spotlight on the first of his Wallander series Faceless Killers.
The novel begins early one freezing January morning when a farmer named Nyström discovers that his neighbours Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked. Johannes Lövgren is dead, and Maria is barely alive when the police arrive. She’s taken to hospital and Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team begin their investigation. At first there seems absolutely no reason those two should have been so brutally attacked. The Lövgrens didn’t have enemies, they didn’t live a wealthy lifestyle and nothing valuable seems to have been taken from the home. Besides, reasons Wallander, if the attacks were the result of a robbery gone wrong, why be so brutal?
The police are following up leads and beginning the initial lab and other forensics testing when everything about the investigation changes. Maria Lövgren dies, but not before uttering the word foreign. That last word suggests that Wallander and his team are going to have a particularly difficult problem on their hands. There’s already anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden, and when word gets round as it soon does that the Lövgrens may have been killed by foreigners, there could be a serious backlash.
The police don’t have long to wait for that reaction. Soon after the Lövgrens are murdered, a Somali immigrant living at a camp not far away is shot. Wallander now has that investigation as well as the investigation into the Lövgrens’ murders on his hands. As the team looks more deeply into the Lövgren case they find that there was more to Johannes Lövgren than it seemed on the surface and there are facts about him that even his wife didn’t know. And as the team members work on the case of the murdered refugee, they discover that that case leads them in unexpected and politically very tricky directions. It takes months, but in the end, a couple of clues and one person with a very clear memory provide the keys to the solution of the murders.
In the meantime Wallander is having problems of his own. His wife Mona left him six months earlier and he is still reeling from their breakup. He misses her dreadfully and isn’t ready to go on without her. His father, with whom he’s never been close, is showing signs of very erratic behaviour so Wallander and his sister Kristina have to make some decisions about how to care for their father. And then there’s his daughter Linda, who attempted suicide when she was a teenager and who has basically cut her father out of her life. As the novel goes on Wallander finds ways to reconcile these major changes in his life.
One of the very important elements in this novel is the look we get at police life. This is a true police procedural where we follow along as the members of the team collect evidence, conduct interviews and follow leads. It’s an honest procedural too in that we see how very long it can take for a case to be solved. There are long hours, lots of annoyances, members of the press and higher-ups to satisfy and of course, the hard, dirty, ugly work of investigating. There’s also the sense of satisfaction when the case is solved although you really couldn’t say that anyone is jubilant.
There’s also a real sense of camaraderie in this novel. All of the cops look out for each other and care about each other. They protect one another and it’s clear that they are a cohesive unit. For instance several of Wallander’s team-mates take on extra work when he has to take time off to settle the question of how to care for his father. Everyone on the team knows that he’s dealing with the breakup of his marriage and in their own ways they try to take care of him. Wallander does his share too. I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that one of his team-mates has to deal with a personal issue and when Wallander finds out about it he does his best to be there.
And then of course there’s the character of Kurt Wallander himself. He is a reflective cop although he’s certainly not hesitant to take action when it’s needed. He’s gloomy but not completely cynical. He’s had some hard blows in his life and at this point in the series he’s at a low point. So he’s melancholy, he drinks too much, takes no care whatever of his health and in general lets himself go. And yet for all that he doesn’t waste people’s time complaining about his life. He’s rather clear-eyed too about his own role in his relationship with his ex-wife, his father and his daughter and doesn’t blame others for his own problems. He’s a very human character who makes more than one mistake in this investigation but at the same time, it’s his intuition and his ability to put things together that prove essential to solving the mystery.
Although this is not a light novel, there is a trace of dark humour running through it. For instance fairly early in the novel Wallander decides to change his eating habits so that he’ll be healthier and maybe even lose some weight. But the pace and focus of the investigation keeps getting in the way. In more than once place in the novel, Wallander realises that
“This day too was going to pass without a change in his eating habits.”
Besides the sense of humour, that devotion to the case also shows another aspect of Wallander’s personality: he is a dedicated cop. He is committed to his job.
There’s also an element of larger commentary in this novel. Mankell uses the murders and the experiences of the cops and some other characters to discuss issues of immigration, politics, the limits of journalism and other issues as well.
The mystery itself has a believable if sad solution, and it’s not arrived at through too much use of coincidence or brilliance that really isn’t credible. The case is solved through hard work, some good luck, solid police intuition and teamwork.
Faceless Killers is a realistic, sometimes gritty police procedural with a distinctive and interesting protagonist, a discussion of larger issues and an unmistakeably Swedish setting. This series has been the inspiration for several other police procedurals; many people say it has helped set the standard for the sub-genre. But what’s your view? Have you read Faceless Killers? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 3 September/Tuesday 4 September – What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn
Monday 10 September/Tuesday 11 September – The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson
Monday 17 September/Tuesday 18 September – Deadly Tide – Sandy Curtis