Over the past few years, I've stumbled across more than one reviewer swooning over Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander mysteries. And so, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover a few Wallanders lurking in a remainders shop. One of them was the first in the series, Faceless Killers (1991; first US pub. 1997). Needing a break from Victorian Lollard novels, I picked it up this afternoon and prepared to swoon.
No swooning ensued.
There's nothing wrong with the novel's content, to be sure: Mankell's protagonist broods anxiously over rising criminal rates, inept government flunkies, and (in this novel, most importantly) the rising tide of immigrants and refugees. National decay is, I suppose, always good for the detective business. The mystery itself is moderately interesting, involving multiple unpleasant murders and a number of red herrings; moreover, Mankell refuses to tie everything up neatly at the end. In this world, some things must remain painfully inexplicable. Mankell delineates the main characters cleanly and sympathetically (although the grimly suffering Rydberg is, in some ways, more interesting than Wallander).
So far, so good. But I found it hard to resist groaning with dismay once I realized that Wallander was an overweight, divorced, and grouchy opera-lover with family issues and a pretty wretched way with the ladies. Haven't Colin Dexter and Ian Rankin done this routine already? (And a lot of other novelists, come to think of it. Mankell at least has the wry grace to acknowledge this: "Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh that things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That's all there was to it" .) Groans stifled, so as not to annoy other people in the coffee shop, I then ran aground on a different problem: the prose. One has to be cautious when discussing a translation, but even so, this novel was terribly flat. Mankell appears to believe in the power of the terse sentence. Here's a typical and random example: "It had been a day of waiting. In the intensive care unit the old woman who had survived the noose was fighting for her life. Would they ever find out what she had witnessed on that appalling night in the lonely farmhouse? Or would she die before she could tell them anything?" (23) The entire novel adopts this combination of short paragraphs and simple sentences. This approach is not necessarily deadly; Joseph Hansen's moderately Hemingwayesque style, for example, crackles and bites. Reading Mankell, however, reminded me of a review of Isaac Asimov that I saw about fourteen or fifteen years ago: the reviewer dourly observed that reading Asimov was akin to the experience of eating unbuttered popcorn. Mankell's prose is...serviceable; it's not particularly memorable.
Sentence structure aside, Mankell does too much of something else on view in that excerpt: he explains everything. The rhetorical questions, intended to create suspense, simply feel clunky and obvious. And then we have this sort of thing: "There he had written her long letters, which he had later torn to pieces and strewn out over the sea in a symbolic gesture, demonstrating that in spite of everything he had begun to accept what had happened" (45). Or this: "The past week had been the most intense of his career. When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week's events" (217). I may be alone in my exasperation here, but there's nothing more frustrating than an author who insistently explicates himself. Surely the reader can be trusted to get the point?
Detective fiction can't do much without a plot, and Mankell handles that well enough. The novel is a police procedural, with all the representations of general drudgery and occasional spots of high-octane activity implied by that designation. The red herrings come and go in believable fashion. The wrap-up is somewhat less satisfactory: after setting a leisurely pace for most of the novel, Mankell suddenly compresses several months into his last few pages. While he probably wants to convey the uneven pace of crime-solving, the result feels rather awkward.
I suspect that I'd be far less disappointed if the series had come without all the hosannas attached. Faceless Killers is not a bad novel--but it's not an especially inspiring one, either. At this point, I'm not interested enough in Wallander to drop everything (even Victorian Lollards, who can be dropped fairly easily) for the other two Mankells in my house.