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Faceless Killers

by Henning Mankell, translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray (Vintage, 2003)

Once upon a time, we thought that the last word on the lonely, brooding detective was John Rebus; that the drinking problem and love for classical music were the preserve of one E. Morse. Then along came Kurt Wallander, who apart from being a despondent, cynical police inspector with plenty of brains but plenty of failings, brought a fresh new perspective on Western society that was thus far limited to a largely British or American representation.

Discovering a new writer is always exciting, but what gives Henning Mankell an edge is that his books are based largely in Sweden, where Inspector Wallander is an officer in Ystad police district in Skåne. And the differences from, for example, Rebus’ seedy Edinburgh, Dalziel’s beloved Mid-Yorkshire, Morse’s academic Oxford or Delaware’s psycho LA are interesting indeed.

In Faceless Killers, the first of the series, Wallander, the cop who once wanted to be an opera singer, has to pull out all stops to solve a couple of crimes that are threatening to explode already simmering anti-immigrant sentiments in Sweden. In a remote farm in Lunnarp, an elderly couple have been victims of a senseless attack. The man is dead and his wife left badly beaten, tied to a chair, with a noose around her neck. The savagery of the crime scene leaves Wallander’s team shaken, but when the woman’s dying word is “foreign”, unease settles in. With the police and the immigration department already at loggerheads, the stage is set for sparks to fly when it gets leaked to the press that the police are on the lookout for a foreigner. Then, suddenly, the Ystad police find themselves with a race-related murder on their plate—a Somali immigrant with his head blown off. With Ystad’s police chief being away on holiday, Kurt Wallander has to assume leadership of the investigation. It doesn’t exactly have him jumping for joy, and he soon finds himself both at a dead end as well as obsessed with the case.

In all, certainly not an original theme, and the similarities between Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus are many—the depression and recourse to drinking, the failed marriage, the troubled relationship with his daughter. But what makes Wallander different from the Morse/Wexford/Dalziel/Rebus crowd is that while the others try not to be overly judgemental, Wallander does not hold back, and freely admits at being confused and perturbed at the way society is changing:

Maybe the times require another kind of policeman, he thought. Policemen who aren’t distressed when they’re forced to go into a human slaughterhouse in the Swedish countryside on a January morning. Policemen who don’t suffer from uncertainty and anguish.
(p.18)

A new world had emerged and he hadn’t even noticed it…. How was he going to learn to live in the new? How would he deal with… so much happening so fast? The murder of the Somali had been a new kind of murder.
(p.231)

As the case twists and turns, we see many faces of Wallander. On the one hand is the conscientious policeman, and caring father and son. On the other is the depressed, lonely drunkard, with an erratic temper. He is distressed about the distance between himself and his nineteen-year-old daughter Linda, to whom he had been very close a few years ago. His aging father is showing signs of senility. Wallander blames himself for not seeing it coming and now that he knows, there is nothing he can do. We see the pitiful state to which he descends when it becomes certain that his marriage is beyond saving. He makes a drunken pass at a judicial officer to whom he is attracted, and admits to once having slapped his wife. We see his twenty-year police career teetering on the brink of extinction when he is caught driving under the influence by two of his junior colleagues. (Used to seeing drunk policemen on duty in Delhi regularly, it is a little hard to digest that being caught driving drunk means immediate suspension for a Swedish cop!)

On the surface, he sounds like a disgusting person, but in sum it is hard to dislike Wallander. He does care about his father, even though he doesn’t really understand him, and really loves his daughter. The ending of his marriage is truly a big blow to him. He is physically brave and always goes in to do the right thing without a thought to his personal safety. As a professional, he is a hard and efficient worker, not afraid to speak his mind.

While Mankell goes deep into the psyche of Wallander, other characters in the book are rather sketchy. We know little about his colleagues, except that Hansson has a penchant for betting on horses, Martinsson is the new boy and so dubbed the IT expert, and a few other odds and ends. Only receptionist Ebba and the aged Rydberg come close to being fleshed out. That said, I do not recall that Ebba’s surname is ever mentioned, or what Rydberg’s first name is, which is a pity given his key role in the book.

Mankell has definitely managed to create an immense sense of—for want of a more eloquent term—atmosphere. This is despite the fact that the narration stutters. The conversation is awkward and sometimes unbelievable, and descriptions leave a lot to be desired. This, though, one suspects, is a case of being lost in translation. It would be unfair to blame translator Steven Murray—translating a work of fiction and at the same time keeping the author’s style and the atmosphere must be a near-impossible task. However, it is obvious that between the Swedish and English, a few expressions have lost their way. For instance, after a ludicrous high-speed car chase in a horsebox through the streets of Lund, which leaves one man dead:

At that moment he saw one of the hourses come galloping back across the field. It was a beautiful white stallion. He didn’t think he’d ever seen such a beautiful horse.
(p.206)

A nice aside in a tense situation, but it doesn’t fit. Similarly, sometimes there is a sense that a sentence isn’t quite right or something is missing every now and then. For instance, disturbed by a sense of foreboding, Wallander tells himself, “Now you’re scared. Now Kurt Wallander is scared” (p.121)—more Hindi film than international bestselling author, but quite likely it sounds perfectly fine in Swedish! Also, while it is impossible to speculate about the original, Mankell’s frequent references to times and dates seem a bit awkward.

Mostly, the book is darkly depressing, but there are smatterings of humour. There is an instance when Wallander is sitting in his office and worrying about his daughter. His phone rings and he snatches it up, bellowing, “This is Papa!” There is another instance, which I am sure is very funny in Swedish:

“Hulda Yngvenson [the police’s pet nutcase] phoned from Vallby and said that it was the disapproving hand of God that dealt the blow,” said Martinsson…. “I put her on the C.F. list.”
The sullen atmosphere was broken by a little amusement when Martinsson explained that C.F. stood for “crazy fools”.
(p.87)

Another mildly amusing incident is when Wallander is given a pay rise. After his calculations, he finds it comes to a grand total of thirty-nine kronor. I’m not sure how the author could have done it without killing the humour, but I had no idea if the amount was the princely sum that would enable Wallander to buy the new video he can’t afford or if it was nominal enough to be a joke!

A few grammatical errors also spoil the flow of the book. Though this edition was published in the US, the copyeditors apparently couldn’t decide whether to go with British or American spellings, so chose a judicious mixture of the two. A man called Erik has at least once been referred to as Eric. And while I objected to the description of a “blonde man”, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me “blonde” and “blond” can be used interchangeably in English, so I stand corrected.

Perhaps Faceless Killers is not the perfect book to warm the cockles of your heart on a cold, lonely winter night when you are curled up under the blanket with a hot cup of tea. It is more likely to disturb and depress. But if you are a fan of the crime genre, the chances are that you will find yourself drinking deeply into Wallander and soon be under the influence.

So, as they say in Swedish, skål.

RATING: 7/10