Henning Mankell – Faceless Killers (1991)

An elderly couple are brutally murdered in a remote farmhouse in Southern Sweden. Inspector Wallander’s only clue is that just before dying the woman whispers the word ‘foreign’. When this becomes public knowledge it leads to an upsurge in racism culminating in the murder of an immigrant. Amidst the wreckage of his personal life Wallander must hunt down two sets of killers.

My only acquaintance with Wallander before reading this book was in the shape of attempting to watch one episode of the recent Kenneth Branagh BBC TV adaptation which I abandoned as pretentious nonsense. I have of course heard of Mankell and Wallander who have a big reputation. None of this prepared me for the actual experience of reading this book. I am now quite unable to decide whether the whole thing is some sort of elaborate joke, just a truly awful translation, or a very bad mystery. Probably a combination of all three. There is no plot. Well none which can seriously be described as such. The killers in both cases are simply tracked down through dogged police work. That is all well and good in one of those ghastly true-crime reconstructions but for me entirely misses the point about the mystery genre – that there should be some mystery! The narrative just plods along with repetitive dullness never really shifting gear or providing anything to stimulate, let alone excite, the reader.

The joke? Well quite a lot is made of Wallander’s being subject to attacks of diarrhoea, which – unsurprisingly – result in one case in his musing on his dirty underwear. Is this some kind of ultra-naturalism or is it a parody of naturalism? I prefer optimistically to think it is the latter. Or that it is some kind of Swedish toilet humour? It certainly made me laugh which was one of the few reliefs the book offered. But my biggest laugh was reserved for the following sentences…’He sat alone in the dark, thinking…..Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning. A sneering face that laughed scornfully at every attempt he made to manage his life.’: now this I did take to be an enjoyable parody of notions of Scandinavian angst. Of course the very bad translation is another option. Or the horrid thought that it was written in all seriousness.

It must be admitted that Faceless Killers is the first book Mankell wrote and it is quite possible that in succeeding volumes he makes a quantum leap which could in some way account for his reputation. Certainly to do this he would need to manage to add to this book some plot, some interesting characters and  some narrative excitement at the bare minimum. However I am certainly not tempted to try another in order to find out. Quite simply this is a very bad book whose only salvation lies in the humour, which I am not at all sure is intended.