Thursday, April 5, 2012

Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers
By Hennig Mankell

I have no idea where this book came from. It was on my shelf and looked short enough and interesting enough to wash my head clear of all the non-fiction I have been reading over the past couple of weeks. There's nothing like settling into a novel after a non-fiction binge. It's like coming home.

When I started the book I had absolutely no idea that it was yet another Swedish crime novel (these things are like bed bugs lately... just what you think you've seen the last one, out pops another from the seams of your coverlet). All I read on the back of the book were the words: "It was a senselessly violent crime," and I said: "SOLD!" I'm not a discerning customer. Anyway, I should have guessed it was Swedish.

As it turns out, Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell pre-dates the current fetish (um.. that's two blog posts in a row that I've used that term) with Scandinavian crime drama, but it does not pre-date the conventions. It is also the first in a series (dammit!). I don't know enough about Scandinavian crime dramas but based on the fact that this novel was an international best seller in 1991 and that it seems to have all the requisite insanity of The Millennium Trilogy (and others), I'm curious as to whether or not this is the grandfather of a genre (much like The New York Dolls were the grandfather of punk rock). Of course, it is set in a quiet provincial town. There is the unnecessarily gruesome murder, the overworked and under-appreciated cops, the over-arching distrust of foreigners, the ubiquitous dislike for women and the ever-impending snowstorms. It's all there. In 1991. I'm beginning to think that, much like Canadian fiction, there should be a checklist that should be created to decide exactly how Swedish a particular book is.

Faceless Killers starts with the (what else?) gruesome murder of an elderly couple on a farm outside a quiet, provincial town. Naturally, the wife suffers a fair amount more than her husband. The rest of the novel follows Kurt Wallander, an over-worked and under-appreciated cop leads the investigation of the killings. The first two thirds of the novel follow Wallander's life in a minute by minute account of the first two weeks of the investigation when it becomes apparent that the killers just might be refugees from Eastern Europe (which naturally sparks all sorts of reactionary hate crimes... this is Sweden after all, the land of Church burnings and Neo-Nazis). He attempts to move the investigation along while his personal life seems to be unravelling all around him. Only his calm and cool Ystad demeanor and the lack of snow seems to carry him through what to virtually everyone else living on the Skane would be a stress level of coronary proportions. Given that he is recently divorced (what cop isn't?) and eating nothing but hamburgers and pizza, I'm surprised that he lives through this episode, but what do I know about the Swedish constitution?

The last third of the novel seems to send the story into overdrive. Months pass in the span of a few pages as the case seems to go as cold as March in Hällesjö, before Wallander resolves the mystery in the final few pages. Given the detailed narrative of the first third, I found this shift in the momentum jarring. I had become accustom the minute by minute narrative style. When it started to spin out of control, Mankell lost me a bit. I started to care a lot less about the resolution due to the pace transition. It felt a little like Mankell was trying to wrap up his novel in time to catch the last train to Sävsjö or something. It all just seemed to lose traction.

But I could live with that. It was a minor nuisance in an otherwise enjoyable crime novel. What really irked me was the translation. I kept checking back to see whether Ernest Hemingway had returned from the grave to abbreviate an entirely new generation. Turns out it's a guy named Steven T. Murray. I'm assuming he really likes Hemingway, or Dick and Jane novels, either/or. It got to a point where I began talking to my wife in short, rapid-fire sentences over lunch. She asked whether or not I had suffered a stroke.

This is a typical (though written by me, not Henning Mankell) paragraph from the book:

Wallander wondered whether he should call Kalle in Väderstad. He felt sick. Ryberg still hadn't arrived. The winter wind blew outside his window. He remembered he hadn't eaten since yesterday. He walked out of the station. He entered the restaurant across the street. He ordered a pizza. He would call Kalle as soon as he got back to the office. The pizza had pineapple. It was 11:46pm.

See what I mean? It's as unnerving as a staring contest.

The other uncomfortable thing about Faceless Killers was its focus on Sweden's (apparent) liberal policy toward immigrants and refugees. While I wouldn't class this novel as being racist or anti-immigration, it did seem to imply a lot of negativity toward non-Swedish residents. While it could be that Mankell's intention was to raise the issue, I'm not sure he was overly clear about it. I got the impression that most of the characters in the book would have been perfectly happy with mass expulsion, but they were all too Nordically polite to say so. I might be wrong, but that was the impression this book left me.

But I'm not going to slag on Faceless Killers too much. As a whole it had me from page one through the pace change and while I lost some of the interest Mankell generated in his build-up I didn't lose so much as to throw the book down in disgust or anything. It's not the world's greatest crime novel  but it certainly isn't the worst book on the market and who am I to get all huffy about Swedish immigration policy? Besides, I could think of worse things to read if you happen to be caught on the overnight train from Stockholm to Rättviks.

If you dig sado-masochistic novels from Scandinavia, check it out. If you were ambivalent about the Millennium Trilogy, give this one a pass.


Jenny said...

I'm glad you took a break from all that non fiction. That stuff is often too deep for me. ;)

Ryan said...

Heh. I think I'm going on a bit of a fiction run for a while, so I've got you covered!

Bibliomania said...

Hey Ryan... I nominated you for a blog award :)

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

You know, I read the (I think) 3rd or 4th installment of the Kurt Wallander series, White Lioness. My impressions were pretty much the same as yours, and for pretty much the same reasons. I was wondering if the earlier books in the series were any better.

Oh yeah, and I've seen some other articles about Scandinavian crime fiction and the "seminal" works of the genre. Some of the novels were from the 60s and 70s, so maybe the roots of the genre go back even further than '91? I dunno. I'd be interested in seeing if they even have English translations of those earlier works.

Lisa said...

Hmm, I've heard great things about the Wallander books and this one definitely sounds interesting although perhaps another in the series might be a better choice.

Ryan said...

@Bibiliomania: Wow! Thanks!

@Jonathan: Which begs the question... Why do the happiness, most peaceful people in the world have such dark things on their minds?

@Lisa: I'd still recommend the book. Just be prepared for a lot of parallels.

Buried In Print said...

I'm not sure if it was deliberate, but I thought that it was, that the later part of the story comes out in a rush, as though it was trying to tangibly represent that long, long wait (in which nothing would give -- or, almost nothing, but I don't want to get spoilery) and then the sudden onslaught of one lead connecting to the next bit. It definitely kept my interest throughout; I've checked the library several times for the next book in the series, but no luck so far.

Shortly before reading it, I listened to the World Book Club interview with him about this specific book (it's here if you're interested in it), in which he does address the question of the different attitudes in Sweden, then and now, about immigration; it definitely added to the story for me, to know how he viewed that part of the story.

Ryan said...

The ending felt like he just wanted to get the book finished so he could go to the supermarket or something (OK, a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but you get the idea).

I love the World Book Club and I will listen to this on my MP3 player during my next run, thanks!

Little Girl Lost said...

Hi Ryan,
I laughed out loud (really, not as in LOL) at your comparison of the translation style with Hemingway. from the except you provided, I'll say you are bang on correct.
It does not say much about me I gues, but i have a secret hankering for books with senselessly violent crimes. i read 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' exclusively because it was about a serial killer, and my biggest problem with the book was that it did not focus as much on the crimes and the criminal as much as it did of the two detectives.
Loved your style of reviewing, and hope to keep coming back for more. following you now!
Please visit my book blog at
and if you like it, please follow. hoping to see you around!
Thank you

Little Girl Lost said...

Thank you for visiting Ryan! please do follow!

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