Book review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

25 04 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer and dramatist (he died in 2015) whose most well-known legacy is the sequence of crime novels, much in the Sjöwall & Wahlöö ‘Martin Beck’ mode, which feature the detective Kurt Wallander (whom, from TV, we now know to look very much like Kenneth Branagh).


Faceless Killers (Mördare unte ansikte, 1991, translated by Steven T Murray) is Wallander’s debut. It opens with the discovery of a vicious attack on the Lövgrens, an elderly farming couple, which has left the husband dead and the wife fighting for her life. Emerging briefly from unconsciousness, Maria Lövgren is able to give the police just one word, ‘foreign’, as a clue to the identity of her assailants; there’s precious little material evidence, and no apparent motive for the brutal home invasion. When a leak to the media suggests (incorrectly) that Wallander’s team believes foreigners to be responsible for Johannes Lövgren’s death, community suspicion falls on the residents of a nearby refugee camp, and the mood turns ugly. It seems as though the only way to avert an escalation into outright racial violence is to solve an apparently-insoluble murder mystery …

Wallander isn’t a particularly stable character: he drinks to excess, has quite severe mood swings, and follows his own irrational hunches while the evidence appears to be pointing in a quite different direction. He is cast, in other words, very much in the mould of the archetypal fictional detective. In Faceless Killers, his wife Mona—for whom he retains strong feelings—has recently left him, his daughter Linda has become estranged, his father appears to be descending into irascible senility. This personal trauma intrudes repeatedly on the investigation, as does a kaleidoscope of often mundane happenstance: his car runs out of petrol, he misses appointments, he sustains a succession of minor injuries (and some not so minor), he repeatedly vows to make better meal choices the next day. And he breaks—or at least scuffs up—the fourth wall:

‘He wondered why almost every policeman was divorced. Why their wives left them. Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh that things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That’s all there was to it.’

This constant accretion of humdrum detail slows the story, but it also gives it a pleasing three-dimensionality: we’re tricked into accepting Wallander as a real person, and by extension accepting also the colleagues and family members around him. In tone, temper, and pace (as well as in his author’s sociopolitical leanings), Wallander is very much the spiritual son of Martin Beck, persistent to a fault, though with less of Beck’s patience and with a rather more dour mood.

The crime is well-conceived, the investigation carefully logical (and littered with a plausible number of initially-promising dead ends), the social commentary is nuanced and reasonably thoughtful. If Mankell’s prose doesn’t quite have the searing crisp clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson or Mari Jungstedt, he still provides a robustly engrossing murder mystery.