Faceless Killers stands out from other crime thrillers by avoiding gimmickry. Its detective character doesn’t have the quirky genius of Sherlock Holmes, the try-hard edginess of Lisbeth Salander, or the hard-boiled wit of Philip Marlowe. Instead, Mankell’s protagonist, Kurt Wallander, who goes on to star in eleven more stories, is an everyman, an experienced but unexceptional cop.
At the opening of the novel, his wife has left him, he is estranged from his daughter, and his father is going senile. His borderline alcoholism and diet of hamburgers and pizza have left him with seven unwanted kilos that he repeatedly resolves to shed, only to fail due to the stress of his job. Apart form his abilities to go without sleep for long stretches and take a few more knocks than the average person, there’s nothing extraordinary about him.
The crime at the centre of the novel is the brutal killing of an elderly couple on their isolated farm. The case is complicated by the dying words of the wife in the couple, who may have identified her killers as “foreigners”, setting Wallander and his local police force into conflict with xenophobic racists that threaten further violence.
The crime genre tends to explore the anxieties of society, and Faceless Killers focuses on a concern that Sweden shares with Australia: asylum seekers and immigration. The author’s position on this complicated. It is no doubt significant that the protagonist is critical of what he sees as Sweden’s open-door policy and haphazard approach to refugees, and the crime is characterised by “hate and revenge”. However, Mankell goes to great pains to ensure that this is not interpreted as racism, with two of the villains of the piece being neo-nazis, and Wallander having sexual fantasies about a black woman, although this last point could be viewed as exoticism.
Wallander solves the mystery not through freakish attention to detail or with fancy technology, but through dogged police work. He spends most of his time interviewing witnesses, designating tasks or on stakeouts, all while trying to manage his shambles of a personal life. He follows false leads, and the case comes to an impasse when he seems to have exhausted all avenues of inquiry. But this unglamorous portrayal of crime solving is compelling because it rings true, and because the reader can imagine themselves performing every step of the investigation.
Like all good crime thrillers, Faceless Killers is addictive. It’s told in unpretentious, functional prose, and it’s refreshing straightforwardness makes it more intelligent than its contemporaries because it doesn’t need to rely on smoke and mirrors. All in all, a solid read.