Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

935308Fiction – print. Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2003. Originally published 1991. 280 pgs. Purchased.

On a cold January night, an elderly Swedish farmer awakens in the middle of the night to an eerie feeling. As his eyes and ears adjust to the faint light cast across the remote landscape, the farmer realizes the back window of his neighbor’s home has been broken into. Hurrying next door, the farmer finds his neighbor bludgeoned to death while his neighbor’s wife has been left to die with a noose around her neck.

The police inspector for Ystad, Kurt Wallander, sees this murder as commentary on the state of Sweden in 1990. What does it say about a society where its elderly population is abandoned in the countryside by a changing economy and then brutally murdered? Others on the force, though, think this crime is an indictment of Sweden’s open-door policy to refugees, especially after the female victim’s last word is ‘foreign’.

While Wallander is personally and professionally frustrated with the Department of Immigration Services, he refuses to let this crime inflame Sweden’s already smoldering anti-immigrant sentiments. He insists on following the male victim’s finances rather than the female victim’s word and does his best to keep this piece of information from the press.

But controlling the anti-immigrant sentiment in the region becomes too difficult, and Wallander must launch a second murder investigation. This time into the murder of a Somali refugee who was targeted because of his race rather than due to any credible connection to the murdered couple.

Lately, I’ve felt bogged down by the other books I’m currently reading — complicated narratives, unfamiliar settings, frustrating characters, etc. I picked up Mankell’s book hoping for an easier, more engaging read. The kind where I’d resent having to put the book down rather than having to pick it up.

In that regard, Mankell’s novel delivered exactly what I was looking for. The book is well-paced with several misdirects that kept me from guessing the conclusion of one of the two crimes. It was also interesting to read this book nearly 30 years after it was first published and see how the anti-immigrant sentiments of yesterday are still prominent, still using the same rhetoric today

Wallander shares characteristics with other fictional Scandinavian detectives – functional alcoholic with a troubled, non-communicative adult child and an ex-wife who hates him – and I am frustrated with how pedestrian he is. Like other fictional investigators, he blunders the investigation because personal problems distract him.

One aspect of Wallander’s character sets him apart: Manekll doesn’t shy away from showing how Wallander allows his preconceived notions and prejudices to influence his investigation. I haven’t often seen addressed in Scandinavian crime novels as the detective is normally presented as the hero.

Troubled, of course, but still the hero as he — and it is always he — manages to solve the crime despite his frustrating family. In Mankell’s novel, the detective is still the hero – he solves both crimes even though his family interrupts him constantly — but his preconceived opinion about the crime causes serious problems. It drags out the time it takes to solve the crime and alienates other officers on the case.

Yet, it also makes him feel less like the common caricature of Scandinavian detectives because he possesses the biases we all carry. Perhaps this is why Mankell’s novel has won several awards and been listed as one of the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die?

Mankell won the Glass Key Award in 1992 for ‘Faceless Killers’. This award is given annually by Skandinaviska Kriminalsällskapet (the Crime Writers of Scandinavia) to the best crime novel written by a Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian or Swedish author.

This is my third book for #20BooksofSummer. According to GoodReads, my mom purchased it at a used book sale in Montana in June 2015. After she passed in January 2018, I sorted through her unread books and decided to take this one back home to Boston with me.   

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