First published in 1991 under the title Mördare utan ansikte, and translated in 1997 by Stephen T. Murray, Faceless Killers introduces Kurt Wallander, a morose Swedish policeman. Wallander is painfully aware that middle age is transforming him into a doughy old man; he is worried about his hostile and increasing senile father; he is alienated from his daughter; and his wife of many years just left him because living with Wallander was killing her soul. Wallander’s disposition is in no way aided by the human depravity his job forces him to confront every day, depravity like the brutal attack on Johannes and Maria Lövgren that left the old farmer noseless and beaten to death. Maria is barely clinging to life after the attack.
There is some hope that the survivor will be able to tell the police who attacked her and her husband, or at least why explain why they were targeted, Hope is dashed. The old woman dies having said only one word with any possible relevance to the killers: the word “foreign”.
Without Maria Lovgren to point the way, Wallander and his team — Hansson, Martinsson, Naslund, Peters, Rydberg, and Svedberg — are forced to fall back on conventional, time-consuming police work. They closely examine the Lövgrens’ lives, with particular emphasis on Johannes, as he was the main focus of the attack. The detectives hope to find something in the victims’ private lives that will suggest why they were targeted. Maria’s last words and the knot around her neck suggest the killers were not Swedish. If they are indeed foreign killers with no obvious connection to the Lövgrens, the case will be that much harder to resolve.
The problem with flipping rocks for a living is what you find under rocks. Johannes has his secrets, such as war profiteering and infidelity. The revelations provide possible lines of investigation but also underline the rot hidden under Sweden’s deceptively pleasing facade.
An already intractable case is further complicated when Maria’s final words are leaked to the press. There is considerable anxiety in Sweden over the swelling numbers of immigrants and refuge seekers attracted by Sweden’s liberal social policies. The possibility that the vicious double murder was the work of two foreigners is just the sort of provocation xenophobes would seize as justification for lashing out at the strangers amongst the Swedes. In short order a refugee facility is set on fire and an innocent Somali man is gunned down, leaving Wallander and his team with two cases to solve.
Once, on Facebook, I suggested a Kurt Wallander drinking game, where the reader takes a sip every time the author comments on life’s fleeting nature or whenever the text revels in melancholy. The problem is this game would kill most readers in short order. In the first four pages of this book there are four references to death. You might say “surely that is to be expected in a police procedural” — but that contemplation of mortality comes even before the Lövgrens are found. “We are old and soon we will die” is apparently the normal waking thought of the neighbor who finds the victims.
I suspect there may be a cultural barrier that prevented me from enjoying this work as the author intended. Probably Mankell never meant the reader to laugh out loud at his lachrymose prose, which is what I did when I got to the line
“The summer all our dreams fell apart.”
To the rest of the world Sweden might be seen as a civilized, peaceful, well-to-do nation; this book presents it as a land of perpetually depressed loners quietly sobbing in the endless drizzle of a land where all dreams die young and all love affairs are doomed before they begin.
In one interview, Mankell explained that the Wallander series was inspired by an alarming uptick in murders. Surely Swedish society was disintegrating! The author made the mistake of actually specifying the hilariously tiny number of killings involved, which as I recall was fewer murders than Kitchener gets in an average year. Context is all, I suspect; to an American six or seven murders would just be the morning news but to a Swede that many killings over the better part of a decade was apparently alarming enough to inspire an entire series of police procedurals.
Stephen T. Murray’s translation is particularly seamless. At no point did I frown at a line and wonder if it accurately conveyed the original text. Never did the translator appear to have stepped between author and reader.
As a procedural this book functions perfectly well. Wallander and his team are methodical and patient; it’s not their fault this is the sort of case where the identity of the killers is not immediately obvious and where it is not at all clear which, if any, of the information they’ve uncovered about the victims is relevant to the case. The detectives are forced to follow through on every detail, no matter how trivial it seems. This is a case that begins with a silent horse and ends with an innocent appearing slip of paper, with no easy solutions in sight.
The refugee murder much is more straightforward. The murderers are not nearly as smart or careful as they think they are. I was interested to note that the case involves an ex-cop gone wrong, which I seem to recall is a recurring theme in these books1. What I cannot seem to find is any hint of the victim’s name; he is called the Somali and identified by the wife and surprising number of children he left behind but if anyone actually names him, I missed finding that detail — and I did look.
My personal reservations about the author’s worldview aside, I enjoyed this, as I suspected I would, I’ve seen the British TV adaptations, which from this example seem to have been reasonable faithful. The Wallander novels are available from Random House.
1: Wallander himself gets caught drunk-driving and while it is good for him that his colleagues treat it as an exceptional lapse and let it slide, it is not good for Sweden when police turn a blind eye to their fellow cops’ peccadilloes. As I recall, this theme of official corruption is even more relevant to Mankell’s Sidetracked.