Excerpted from Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell. Copyright © 2011 by Henning Mankell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Internationally acclaimed author Henning Mankell has written eleven Kurt Wallander mysteries. The books have been published in thirty-three countries and consistently top the bestseller lists in Europe, receiving major literary prizes (including the UK's Golden Dagger for Sidetracked) and generating numerous international film and television adaptations. He has also published many other novels for children, teens, and adults. In addition, he is one of Sweden's most popular dramatists.
Born in 1948, Mankell grew up in the Swedish village Sveg. He now divides his time between Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as a director at Teatro Avenida. He has spent many years in Africa, where a number of his novels are set.
Give the Man a Break: KURT WALLANDER
The average American hard-boiled detective is as well known for busting wise-guys as he is for muttering wise-cracks, but Europe’s most recent hard-boiled incarnations are not so full of bravado. Rather, they seem to echo the sense of overwhelming chaos that has come with the quickening modernization of our world.
Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s Swedish police commissioner from the small town of Ystad, is a perfect example. The over-tired policeman’s health is less than perfect given his preference for fast food, coffee, alcohol, and little sleep. Middle-aged and divorced from his wife Mona (which he still regrets), Wallander lives the familiar life of a solitary detective. Yet he is shy and longs for a woman who will understand him. He is the sort of man who asks each morning whether life has a purpose—not his life, but life in general.
Still more typical of modern life is Wallander’s strained relationship with his aging father, who lives on a farm near Ystad, where he paints Swedish landscapes, alternately with or without a wood grouse. His failed attempts to reconcile himself with his stern father’s disapproval of his career as a policeman remains a constant source of consternation for Wallander. Each time he fails to visit his father because of his job, readers cannot help but feel sympathy for this awkwardly helpless guardian of the law.
We can see less clearly into Wallander’s inner thoughts than we can the details surrounding him. It is common for Wallander’s interior dialogue to be disrupted by the cruelty of the gruesome murders he must investigate, as if he never has time to find himself. The society that Wallander must occupy is one that has fractured under cultural shifts in race, equality, and morality, and ceaselessly draws Wallander and his associates back into the savage brutality it reaps. Henning Mankell explains the force behind Wallander’s drive:
“I wanted to write about how difficult it is to be a good police officer. Police officers often tell me they know things are changing quicker than they can deal with, that society’s outracing them. But Wallander’s never cynical. He never says, “I don’t care about that.” Naturally that damages him, but he takes responsibility, and that’s what I love. He feels tired because the work is too much. But if he didn’t do the work, he’d feel worse, he would leave a big black hole in himself . . . I think a lot of people are struggling to manage now—feeling they are running for a bus they’ll never catch. In that sense, he’s a very common man. In Sweden, people write to him as if he’s alive, and can help them.”
(The Guardian, January 12, 2002)
So Kurt Wallander approaches each new case more skeptically, with increasing determination and ingenious intuition, which is to say, not so different from the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. In the end, the case is always put to rest, but Kurt Wallander is simply very tired.
1. In what ways is Faceless Killers surprising? What is unusual about its crimes and the manner in which they are solved? Why would Henning Mankell choose to make the novel about two apparently disconnected crimes, one motivated by greed and another by racial hatred? How do you think the refugees are portrayed? And why?
2. Rydberg describes the crime scene as being so grisly it was “like an American movie” [p. 21]. What does this comment suggest about the relationship between representations of violence for purposes of entertainment and real violence? What does it suggest about the differences between Sweden and America?
3. In what ways do the setting, an isolated area of rural Sweden, and the story’s first victims, an elderly couple, make the murders seem especially horrifying?
4. Before a press conference, Wallander has an attack of self-doubt. “I’m searching for the slayers of the dead,” he says, “and can’t even pay attention to the living” [p. 97]. What aspects of his life is he neglecting? Why does Henning Mankell devote so much of the novel to Wallander’s personal life: his strained relationships with his father, his daughter, and his soon to be ex-wife? What does this personal dimension add to the novel?
5. Wallander wonders why “almost every policeman was divorced. Why their wives left them. Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That’s all there was to it” [p. 27]. What is it about being a cop that would make marriage unsustainable? How does Wallander feel about his estranged wife? What do their interactions reveal about why the marriage failed?
6. Within moments of meeting Ellen Magnusson, Wallander suddenly realizes that she is “the mystery woman with whom Johannes Lövgren had had a child. Wallander knew it without knowing how he knew” [p. 248]. To what extent is this kind of intuition responsible for solving crimes in Faceless Killers? Where else does a hunch or sudden insight play a role in leading the detectives in the right direction? How does it help him solve the murder of the Somali refugee?
7. Confronted by a case he cannot solve, Wallander is plunged into an existential crisis: “Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning. A sneering face that laughed scornfully at every attempt he made to manage his life” [p. 80]. In what way is Faceless Killers, and perhaps every mystery novel, about the need to assign meaning to a world that can appear random, chaotic, and meaningless? How does solving a crime restore, if only briefly, order to the world?
8. Much of Faceless Killers is concerned with the controversies surrounding refugees, asylum-seekers, and open borders in Sweden. What is Wallander’s attitude toward these issues? What does the novel, as a whole, seem to suggest about the tensions between Sweden’s liberal immigration policies and its growing racial tensions? How do Wallander’s erotic dreams about a black woman, and his daughter’s relationship with a black man, fit into this context?
9. What specifics does the novel reveal about how police investigations are conducted? About the strained relations between the police, the press, and the government? About the connection between sudden insight and the dogged search for clues?
10. How important is Wallander’s relationship with Rydberg? What does Rydberg add both to the investigation and to the novel?
11. Wallander finds himself frequently knocked to the ground during the course of his investigations, nearly loses his job, gets slapped in the face, and refers to himself as both a “dubious cop” and a “pathetic cop.” When a fellow officer calls him “the hero of the day,” Wallander replies: “Piss off” [p. 107]. Is Wallander a hero? If so, how do his flaws and foibles fit into his heroism?
12. Looking back over the investigation with Rydberg, Wallander says, “I made a lot of mistakes,” to which his partner replies, “You’re a good policeman. . . . You never gave up. You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders in Lunnarp. That’s the important thing” [p. 279]. What were Wallander’s mistakes? Why did he make them? Is Rydberg right in suggesting that perseverance and will are more important than perfect police work?
13. At the very end of Faceless Killers, as Kurt Wallander reflects on the “senseless violence” he has seen, he thinks about “the new era, which demanded a different kind of policeman. We’re living in the age of the noose. . . . Fear will be on the rise” [p. 280]. What does Wallander mean by “the age of the noose”? What changes and new fears does he envision? Have these fears been validated by the events of the decade since the book was first published?
14. Most Americans have a rather idyllic view of life in Sweden. In what ways does Faceless Killers contradict that view? Is it disconcerting to learn that Sweden suffers many of the same problems—drugs, crime, racism—that beset the United States?