My copy of Faceless Killers is littered with snippets of praise, both for Mankell in general and for the book in particular. “Sweden’s greatest living mystery writer!” (Los Angeles Times). “An especially satisfying crime novel” (Wall Street Journal). “A thriller of the very best kind.” (The Times [London]). “Beautifully constructed plots.” (New York Post). “An excellent thriller…A terrific novel.” (The Independent [London]).
I’m not in a position to generalize about Mankell, or Wallander, after reading just one novel in this series. But I honestly can’t see why this book, or its author, would stimulate such enthusiasm. The style is almost unbearably plodding–not quite as dreary as the Stieg Larsson books (or the 1.5 of them I managed to wade through), but close. Maybe the fault lies with the translators, but there is no elegance, no rhythm, no color to the prose at all: it’s just one statement after another. Its starkness does seem suited, after a while, to the bleak landscape–both literal and emotional–of the novel, but that didn’t rescue it from seeming perfunctory, as writing, rather than artistic or literary: it often seemed as if Mankell was just working his way down a checklist of things to include or describe:
At 4 p.m. that afternoon Wallander discoverd that he was hungry. He hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch. After the case meeting in the morning he had spent his time organising the hunt for the murderers in Lunnarp. He found himself thinking about them in the plural.
For the next three days nothing happened. Naslund came back to work and succeeded in solving the problem of the stolen car. A man and a woman went on a robbery spree and then left the car in Halmstad. On the night of the murder they had been staying in a boarding house in Bastad. The owner vouched for their alibi.
He gets the job done, but do reviewers really have such low expectations for crime fiction qua fiction that something so flat gets so much praise?
Perhaps the “very best kind” of “terrific” thriller doesn’t need great prose, just an interesting and well-constructed plot (a double-standard, of course, as if genre fiction should not be expected to be well written in every respect). How good is Faceless Killers by this measure? It’s fine, I guess. By the end the necessary information has been gathered and the pieces fitted together. Because it’s a procedural, solving the case is a matter of following along as the police do their job, which necessarily makes us more passive as readers–we have to wait for their discoveries to be delivered to us. Lots of very good crime novelists use the procedural form–as P. D. James has pointed out, nowadays it’s really the only way to write realistic mysteries, after all. A procedural can become rich and interesting if the contexts and the characters are developed enough and the police’s discoveries aren’t all strictly literal. Cases can be devised that draw both detectives and readers into new territory–social, political, intellectual, even philosophical. And the detectives themselves can be made multifaceted, and have plot lines of their own, so that the case under investigation becomes a device for personal exposure or exploration as well. James, of course, does all this brilliantly (think of A Taste for Death, for instance), as does Ian Rankin (whose last three Rebus novels in particular deserve to be called ‘condition of England’ novels), and sometimes Elizabeth George (Deception on His Mind, I think, is one of her most interesting). Faceless Killers reads like a thin version of, say, Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close. Wallander is a close cousin of Rebus (and not too distant from Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks)–which is not to say that Wallander is derivative (if I have the chronology right, they are basically contemporaries), just that with his divorce and his drinking and his depression, he seemed formulaic, another in an already well-populated group. Over the later books in the series, perhaps, he distinguishes himself in some way besides his fondness for opera.
The crime is very violent, and described very graphically, and there are some intense action sequences in the novel. I suppose this is why some of the reviewers call it a “thriller” rather than a “mystery.” I don’t enjoy that kind of reading very much: I’d rather be drawn in intellectually than manipulated through fear and suspense. This, I recognize, is basically a matter of taste, though I think that it is worth asking if different kinds of preferred experiences might in fact be more or less valuable, or whether we ought to seek out or encourage preferences that pander to our baser nature rather than our higher! (Look, for example, at Wayne Booth’s comments on Jaws in The Company We Keep, and ask yourself “who am I being, what am I desiring, as I go along with this kind of story?”) Here I think Mankell’s dull style is actually a good thing, because though grim, his violence is not really sensational–it’s just there, and then we move on to the next thing. The case does touch on some broader issues, particularly xenophobia and tensions over immigration. Again, though, the treatment seems perfunctory: we don’t spend time among the asylum seekers in the camps, and the central crime turns out to be connected only incidentally to the racial tensions it stokes. Probably the most distinctive feature of the book, for me, was its atmosphere, a relentless cold heaviness. Things just always get worse, and then there’s more sleet and snow. Who wouldn’t want to spend hours immersed in that?
I read Faceless Killers for a couple of reasons–first, because Mankell is such a big name now that I figured I should have some first-hand experience, and then because I would like to broaden my course reading list by adding some ‘international’ authors and Scandinavian crime fiction is very hot right now. If he bumped anyone from my usual list, it would be Ian Rankin. Right now, though, Rankin wins: he’s just a better writer. The question is, should I (must I?!) read more Henning Mankell to be sure. Suppose I read one more, to see how much better he gets: any recommendations?