Faceless Killers was Henning Mankell's first entry in the popular Wallander series and the first of his books to appear in an English translation. In honor of tonight's Edgar awards, it seems appropriate to revisit the book.
Faceless Killers starts with a 45-year-old Kurt Wallander acting as lead detective in the gruesome murder of an elderly couple in the country — a similar (if less gruesome) set-up to his most recent non-Wallander mystery, The Man from Beijing. No one saw or heard anything during the attack, and there's almost no evidence left at the scene, launching Wallander and his fellow detectives onto a long and seemingly hopeless search for a couple of faceless killers. The only clue they have to go on initially is the elderly woman's final word, "Foreigners!" which threatens to ignite a kindling hatred for the thousands of refugees currently living in Sweden. So the game is two-fold: find these faceless killers, and do so before people start to take matters into their own violent hands.
Along the way, as Wallander and his team probe the histories of the victims and make a few stunning discoveries, Wallander is fighting what will become standard fare: a lingering, low-level depression. Here we see the roots of some of his personal demons close up: his divorce is only three months past, his daughter is distant, unreachable, completely mystifying, and his father exhibits the first serious signs of dementia. Under this pressure, Wallander — who, as in many of the following books, ceases to sleep or eat decently during his investigations — acts out in ways that will have consequences for his behavior in later novels.
Faceless Killers also introduces characters who will become familiar through the rest of the series: Martinsson, later Wallander's protege, is here just a fresh cadet; Rydberg, later his lamented mentor, is live on the scene and in the case, giving the series' only taste of his direct influence on Wallander. Mankell has recently, in The Pyramid, re-tread this ground with a series of short stories outlining Wallander's early days, but this remains the first book that fully develops the character in situ.
Mankell was developing not only the characters but his own style, here, which is not nearly as polished as some later works. This first book had a bit of cliché creep, as though the author was acknowledging the need to follow certain police/crime mystery protocols. Then again, the book is pretty self-aware, too: Wallander, bemoaning his divorce, at one point notes that even in detective fiction, the policemen are divorced, as evidence that his own case isn't so strange.
Faceless Killers is a worthwhile read for those who've come to the Wallander series late, perhaps through the recent BBC series with Kenneth Branaugh, or as a re-read for long-time series fans. Since most of the tension in the book comes from the characters, not the mystery they're solving, even knowing the ending doesn't take much away from this very solid book.