More Gun-Toting Nordics: A Review of Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers (by Bethany)


I don’t read detective novels very often, but I do tend to enjoy them when I do. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I wanted to or as much as I expected to. It’s premise is very ordinary and formulaic (not that this is a bad thing in detective novels, necessarily): Kurt Wallander is a seasoned detective who manages even the diciest cases with ease but can’t seem to keep control of his personal life. Against a backdrop of a separation from his wife, a lack of communication from his adult daughter, a burgeoning affair with a married woman, his struggles with what is probably alcoholism, and a growing awareness of his father’s decline into senility, Wallander and his colleagues manage the investigation of a double homicide and its complicated aftermath. There is nothing in this premise to suggest that the novel shouldn’t be engaging, but I don’t know. I found it slow. Maybe I’m getting tired of detective novels, or maybe some of the issues raised in the novel would be more interesting if I knew more about Swedish culture and politics. I’m not sure.

First of all, I found Mankell’s prose (or, more precisely, Steven T. Murray’s translation of Mankell’s prose) to be competent but bland. If anything, it seemed as if this novel was created by taking a good detective novel and lobotomizing it. Like a human survivor of a successful frontal lobotomy, this novel can do everything that another detective novel can do, but it lacks personality. Its prose is spare, but it’s not spare in the Hemingway/Raymond Chandler/Raymond Carver sort of way. It’s spare in the boring way, and I found myself reading a few pages and then beginning to look for distractions.

I did find that some of the larger issues raised in this novel were interesting, although like I said above I probably don’t have enough context to appreciate them fully. This novel is set in 1990, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Sweden at that time was facing an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Apparently Sweden’s policy at that time was for open borders, and anyone who wanted to live in Sweden could enter the country easily, although they had to live in refugee camps temporarily while they applied for residency permits. Many of the characters in this novel grumble about this situation, and it seems as if the movement of these immigrants and refugees is not well monitored and tracked. There is an uneasy relationship between the police department – for which Wallander works – and the government department that oversees the refugee camps, and whenever an immigrant is involved in a crime, the police blame the immigration department for not monitoring their refugees more carefully and the immigration department blames the police for not providing enough surveillance around the camps. This all becomes relevant in this novel when an elderly couple is murdered in their home. The husband, Johannes Lövgren, is dead before police arrive on the scene, but his wife Maria is left with a noose around her neck and dies shortly after she is taken to the hospital, but not before she wakes up and repeats the word ‘foreign,’ leading the police and the media to assume that her killer was an immigrant.

The question of immigration is an interesting one to me, and I tend to align myself with supporters of open borders, although I am well aware of many of the complications that can arise from this policy.  In this novel, the expected backlash against non-Swedes erupts after the media reveals Maria Lövgren’s last words, and Wallander and his colleagues find themselves saddled not only with the Lövgren homicide but with an arson incident and a murder at a refugee camp as well – incidents that Wallander’s intuition tells him to link to the murder of the Lövgrens. As the investigation takes him to several different Swedish cities in search of leads, Wallander tracks down two old friends – a racehorse manager that Wallander knows from childhood, when both men aspired to become opera singers(??) and a police officer from another city that Wallander met at a conference, both of whom end up helping him with the case – learns a bit about what his adult daughter is up to (although this part of the plot is not as well fleshed out as I would have liked), and takes a break from the case to struggle with the question of how to manage his ailing father.

Wallander is distanced from everything around him. In his professional life, this distance helps him, because it gives him a sense of objectivity and allows him to look at the case and its many components through a broad lens. In his private life, of course, his distance from his soon-to-be-ex wife, from his daughter, from his father and sister, and from his friends causes him pain and even further isolation. Even at work, while Wallander is respected by his colleagues, he maintains a fierce distance between his interactions with his colleagues and his personal life. In one rather baffling subplot, a detective who is established as Wallander’s most methodical, accurate, and trusted colleague is suffering from a variety of ailments that are later diagnosed as prostate cancer. This man informs his co-workers of his diagnosis matter-of-factly and leaves the police force to focus on his treatment, but Wallander – who is not without sympathy for his co-worker and friend, not exactly – continues to show up at the sick man’s house to go over the details of the case with him. At one such meeting, this man makes the pronouncement, “I don’t think I’m going to make it through this. I might live past Christmas; I might not… One has to endure” (273) adding a level of Camus-like existentialism to the already bleak landscape of this novel.

Most of this novel takes place in winter, and Wallander has a strange antipathy for snow. Characters in this novel remark on the weather often, and whenever they do, the temperature always seems to be hovering right around the freezing mark. It’s always cold and windy, and it always looks like it might snow, but it rarely does, and Wallander seems almost afraid of the prospect of snow. Having lived in climates that receive significant snow for most of my adult life, I find this strange. Living in New England, as I did, or in Sweden, as Wallander does, one really doesn’t have the luxury of avoiding snow. Sure, there are times when one stays home to avoid icy roads, but most people who live in these areas simply make sure they have good tires and good anti-lock brakes and good defrosters on their cars and good coats, hats, and boots for their bodies and just deal with the snow when it arrives. Wallander’s near-phobic desire to avoid snow strikes me as incongruous with his otherwise-stoic personality, and I never really made sense of it. I even tried to dig into it on a figurative level and thought of Book II of Native Son, where the police are trying to solve the murder of Mary Dalton and the snow both conceals clues (by covering up objects in the landscape that might be relevant to the case) and reveals recent activity (it is usually easier to distinguish footprints in snow than it on dry pavement, for example), and it is possible that Wallander’s aversion to snow is some kind of figurative or subconscious fear that his physical world will be altered in ways that he can’t control. I don’t know – but this element of the novel definitely stood out to me as a part of Wallander’s personality that I didn’t understand.

Wallander sees himself as living on the cusp of a new kind of criminality and a new kind of world. The newfound mobility of eastern Europeans definitely seems to be part of that new world, although Wallander doesn’t comment on this fact directly (the killers of Johannes and Maria Lövgren turn out to be Czech, for example, and Johannes is discovered to have a secret double life in which he has ties to the criminal underworld dating back to World War II). Wallander also seems to feel as if the world is becoming more brutal – that the violence of his present world is, well, more violent than the violence of the past: “He was trying to understand. The only thing he came up with was the same idea he had had so many times before. A new world had emerged, and he hadn’t even noticed it. As a policeman, he still lived in another, older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new? How would he deal with the great uneasiness he felt at these changes, at so much happening so fast?” (231)

(See what I mean about the bland prose, by the way?)

I tend to be skeptical of anyone who says that we (at any time in history) live in a “new world.” I tend to believe that while it’s true that the world is always changing, it fluctuates within a grid of established patterns rather than traveling in a straight line into territory that is entirely new and different. However, I am intrigued that Mankell emphasizes the idea that it is as a policeman that Wallander feels he still lives in the past. It makes me wonder whether there is something essentially conservative about the mindset of people who are trained to keep other people safe. As a career police officer, Wallander would have received his training when he was in his late teens or early twenties, as many police and military personnel do today. Of course he would have received some ongoing training, but the bulk of a police officer’s training is given in an intensive fashion at the beginning of the officer’s career – and there is something very strange about telling a twenty-one year-old, This is how the world works, and these are the steps you need to follow to manage that world. I guess many of us are given some form of these instructions, either through our careers or in our personal lives, and many young adults are just naïve enough and self-confident enough to believe it. Well, yeah, we say, I can do that.

Like so many detective novels, this is basically a book about living in an uncertain world. Wallander’s self-doubt pervades the novel, even as he solves the case successfully. The novel’s flat affect is a result of Wallander’s flat affect, I suppose, although I found it off-putting as a reader. I recommend this book only very skeptically, although I do think I might read another of Mankell’s novels at some point, just to see what else he does with this character and with the changing nature of Europe in the 1990’s. If I do, I’ll let you know what I think.

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3 Responses to More Gun-Toting Nordics: A Review of Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I feel like Steig Larsson spent a lot of time in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo talking about snow too. Perhaps when one is from a Nordic country that is what one does?

    • lfpbe says:

      Did he? I don’t remember that at all, although I do remember that novel having a very bleak mood to it. The protagonist was also dealing with some kind of crisis, right? He was being sued or something and had lost his job? Waiting for it to start snowing can be sort of dramatic, too – I guess it could be a technique to build suspense, although in Faceless Killers I don’t think it served that purpose very effectively.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        Yes, Mikael Blomkvist was convicted of libel and his credibility ruined at the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And in my mind the entire book is blanketed in snow. If it was discussed at length, I honestly can’t say at this point. But snow was definitely a presence.

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