Review of Faceless Killers

I watched him carefully. He was one-handedly texting on an iPhone, with a laptop perched on his knee, one eye on the television. What was he doing? Was he talking to a friend? Playing a game? Hopefully writing an essay for school? Just hanging out with his parents watching a movie? I’d say, “none of the above.” He’d say, “all four in a perfectly harmonized multi-tasking way. Welcome to the Twenty-first Century, dad!”

It might be impossible for a fifty-eight year old, raised on Rin Tin Tin, Howdy Doody and the wheels and gears of Mechano construction sets, to fathom his son’s abilities or inclinations yet avoid cultural and social obsolescence -- but he’d better try.

Future Present

What's this to do with Swedish author Henning Mankell or his crime mystery Faceless Killers? This is a book response, not a parental rant against the strange new world of technology. Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s frumpy, grumpy Swedish crime investigator and I have something in common. We are both in danger of becoming culturally irrelevant, maybe extinct; both of us fear this looming prospect.

Wallander’s responsibilities required him to adjust to a new kind of Swedish crime, ruthless new criminals, a seemingly unmanageable immigration, and a new way of being a police officer among bureaucracies that were even more overwhelmed than he was by a future rapidly bursting into the present. Wallander’s required social and personal adjustments are the recurring puzzles of Mankell's entire mystery series. These tensions are laid down in this first volume, Faceless Killers: “The New World had emerged, and he (Wallander) hadn’t even noticed it. As a policeman, he had still lived in another older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new? How would he deal with the great un-easiness he felt at these changes, at so much happening so fast?"

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler characterized Kurt Wallander’s condition as 'future shock'. Whether Wallander, a fresh-faced Ystad police recruit in 1970 had a chance to read or be forewarned about the disorientation of the near future, we can’t know; what we can know is that the Swedish baby boomer was forced to make room for the new world of the 90’s, with social changes even more complicated than in Toffler’s time.

New Crime and Criminals

Faceless Killers is an apt title. The initial crime took place deep in the twilight hours in the obscure hamlet of Lunnarp, a normally tranquil place, where neighbours reared children, harvested fields, aged, reminisced, and were expected to die natural deaths. Deep in the murkiness of a Swedish winter night an old couple, the Nystöms, became apprehensive about their next door neighbours Johannes and Maria Lövgren, with whom they coffee’d and believed that they knew as well as their own family. Mr. Nyström woke early but didn’t hear the accustomed sound of Johannes feeding his horse. The lights were ablaze in his next door neighbours' cottage; something was out of order. Overcoming his doubt that anything could possibly be wrong, Mr. Nyström checked out the situation and encountered catastrophe next door. Ystad police were called.

The Lövgrens were massacred in their kitchen; Johannes was dead and Maria was on the floor with a noose around her neck, clinging to life when the police arrived. Wallander was dumbfounded at the viciousness of the murders, especially the unaccountable motive. No one should be murdered in this fashion, not just for money or robbery. It was obvious to him that malicious rage was at the core of the slaughter, but why rage of this magnitude? Inspector Rydberg, Wallander’s mentor and closest friend, accompanied Maria to the hospital and overheard her dying words. He tells Wallander, "I only managed to catch one word. Foreign.... Well then. So now you know that her last message to the world was the word foreign, in answer to the question who committed this insane crime?"

A foreigner did it! This is not the answer the politically correct police administration wanted to hear; the crime team did all within its power to soften the impact of those words. Step one was to keep the information under wraps, especially from the press. Step two, to obscure or dismiss the old woman’s last testament by suggesting that she was disoriented or slurring. Step three, to explore other motives and less controversial perpetrators than the old woman's belief that they were un-Swedish immigrants or asylum seekers. The neutral sounding exclamation, ‘robbers did it!’ sounded much better. Yet proof of robbery was needed.

New Perspective on Old Neighbour

Did the old couple have any possessions worthy of robbery? If not, what could have been the motive for the crime against them? Their neighbours were convinced that Johannes had no hidden wealth and felt that, like all the denizens of the rural district, the old couple had no enemies. Wallander considered the neighbours' reports sincere but unlikely. Misgivings about the couple’s image as unassuming farmers drove him to rummage through their lives. He discovered that Johannes did have a sordid past, a past confirmed by the farmer's brother-in-law who had covered it up to shelter his sister Maria from the truth.

The truth was Johanness was not poor. He had benefited financially by collaborating with the Nazis. During the war, he provided them with beef that fed their troops on the cheap. His persona as a poor man crumbled.

Wallander learned of a second infidelity. He fathered a child with a secret mistress in a nearby town in the 1950's. He paid her substantial child support over the years. Unexpected motives from the past produced potentially new suspects. Wallander wondered about how the Lovgrens' friends and neighbours would adjust to such a revised perspective on an old neighbour. "For a lifetime they had lived in close contact with the man who had not been the man he pretended to be at all."

New Citizens

Things are not as they seem: in Lannarp, in Sweden, nor in any modern liberal democracy. The world has shrunk; minds, politics and policies have not expanded. We readers, like Wallander, are justifiably afraid. Afraid of lawlessness and violence whether from the flood of refugees or misplaced persons; afraid of ourselves and our racism, and our democracy's inability to discern between refuge seekers and international criminals. We are afraid for the victims of the inevitable crimes that our inability to adjust will produce. Like Wallander and the Ystad police, we would rather twist the evidence and find a more familiar solution: a normal crime narrative with familiar motives and clearly defined suspects.

Somehow Wallander needed to erase Maria's final word 'foreigner' and replace it with "spurned and abandoned wife or son" or "corrupt cop." The media, Sweden's collective superego, would not let the incendiary word 'foreigner' go. And so the backlash began against all newcomers, against the most visible minorities living in asylum seeker compounds or working on migrant farms. One camp close to the Lövgrens' farm was set ablaze; following that, a migrant worker died of a shotgun blast. Wallander was phoned anonymously and told that these deaths were in retaliation for the Lövgrens. As if the original crime was not complex enough, now with this racial spin and the police commissioner's oversensitivity to charges of racism, the murder inquiry was tangled.

Wallander's task to soften the identity of the killers was complicated but he also had his private but unexpressed opinions. He ponders: "I really hope that the killers are at the refugee camp. Then maybe it'll put an end to this arbitrary, lax policy that allows anyone at all, for any reason at all, to cross the border into Sweden. But of course he couldn't say that to Rydberg. It was an opinion he intended to keep to himself."

Wallander is no racist. It is the immigration policy not the immigrating people that he wrestles with. No genuine racist would, as Wallander did, risk their life and limb to save lives in the burning refugee camp. Wallander is however double-minded. He desires the security of an older time when the national boundaries were not as porous. He maintains that with lenient immigration policies the Swedish people must be held accountable for screening and socially supporting those with legitimate claims. Otherwise crimes and criminals will morph and monstrous consequences like the killings in Lannarp will increase. Neither a xenophobe nor a frivolous liberal, Wallander does not he have a solution; he is better at seeing the dilemma than providing an answer. But until a solution is found both Wallander personally and Sweden collectively will suffer the profound identity crisis that accompanies future shock. Eventually Kurt is able to articulate his concern to a colleague: "Right now we’re living in a country where anyone for any reason can come across the border in any manner. Control has been eliminated. The customs service is paralyzed. There are plenty of unsupervised airfields where the dope and the illegal immigrants are uploaded every night…. people who belong to the fascist secret police in Romania are starting to show up here in Sweden. Seeking asylum. Should it be granted to them?"

New Wallander, New Sweden

The macrocosm, the big picture, is often best revealed in the microcosm, the smaller picture. Kurt Wallander's personality parallels Swedish society. Wallander is insular, relationally dysfunctional, addictive, and disoriented. Mona, his wife, abruptly left him, even though the sources of her discontent and incompatibility had been festering for years. For security more than anything else, Kurt yearned for the more confident days with Mona but made several disastrous and half-hearted attempts to reconcile with her. Finding himself fascinated with and dreaming about other exotic women, he questioned the quality of his relationship with Mona, trying all the while to reclaim her affection. Fortified with drink he made a buffoon of himself during a 'make up' date with her. Sweden finds itself longing for the good old days, furtively hoping for security all the while flirting unconsciously with a new configuration of citizenship.

Just as Sweden's social policies are not well thought through and dangerously negligent of the needs of its citizens, Wallander in his frustration is morally irresponsible. He became so disoriented by his humiliating experience with his ex that his malfunctioning moral compass allowed him to drive home drunk hopefully avoiding detection by the highway patrol. Predictably, police comrades pull him over and overlook his behaviour, saving him from a career-ending blunder. Learning little, Wallander drove back to headquarters in the morning, regretful but not completely sober. His resolution to curb his drinking like his constant vows to change his eating habits is skin-deep. Addiction to worn out patterns by Sweden's institutions are likewise dangerously inept; it is only lucky that the social situation has not erupted as surely as the case of the faceless killers suggests it will someday. Cover up and political correctness will not, like Wallander's enabling comrades, make the necessary changes.

Wallander's relational complications are not restricted to Mona, or his daughter Linda. They range freely--penetrating all dimensions of his life. His connection with his father, Povel, whose own curmudgeonly character may be the origin of Kurt's difficulties, was destructive. Henning Mankell renders the tension between father and son convincingly. Wallander loved his dad and desired to be a support to him as he aged, but on the other hand, Kurt resented his artist father for humiliating him and not accepting his vocational choice to become a detective. Perhaps in this relationship the tension between Old Sweden and New Sweden is highlighted, in its love for tradition yet its uncontrolled drive to modernity. What is needed to overcome the social generation gap? Is there any hope for reconciliation between the old and the new? Any relief in the animus of the old for what it considers the ineffectualness of the new generation? Can the new generation reframe the old values in new ways so that common values in society can be expressed? There is an urgency here indicated by the oncoming senility of Wallander's cantankerous father. Could society itself become insanely stuck in the past like Povel or paralyzed in the future, as in Kurt's case?

Kurt Wallander's solution to his personal conundrums is a magical mantra that he incants when things get out of control. When his pain is too much to handle "he thought about Mona and the man who would pick her up. And Linda laughing, the black man at her side. His father painting his everlasting landscape. He thought about himself too. Time to live a Time to die." That biblical phrase from Ecclesiastes 3 is Wallander's magical way to avoid hurtful memories. He used it as a mantra over the years, ever since he was nearly killed as a new recruit, in order to ignore the impact of threatening events by reducing them to expressions of fate, rather than consequences of inadequate choices. He chants the verse when he finds himself incapable of sharing with Rydberg his reckless drinking escapade, “Why don’t I tell Rydberg about that? he wondered. Why don’t I say anything? Or perhaps he already knows?… The incantation flashed through his mind. A time to live a time to die.” He referred to the chant when he refused to acknowledge Rydberg's pending death. Wallander accepted the pain as inevitable and something that he must live through stoically. Little wonder that change came so hard for him, he was fated. Kurt Wallander as much as admits that his country and he are much alike when he complains: "Sweden had turned into a country where people seem to be afraid of being bothered more than anything else. Nothing was more sacred than ingrained routine."

Wallander may have no solutions but Henning Mankell hints at some throughout Faceless Killers as well as the entire Wallander series. Henning Mankell while not revealing an overt spiritual perspective does seem to point toward a renewed sense of the sacred, rooted in a revived humanism or better yet, new ways of being lovingly humane. Wallander's troubles as a detective are answered through vulnerability and the willingness to reveal his own deep sense of being flawed. This is coupled with a genuine compassion toward victims of injustice. Rydberg may have said it best when he declares Kurt Wallander a good cop because he never gives up till he thoroughly investigates and solves a crime. He refers to Kurt's persistence when he says Justice doesn’t only mean that the people who commit the crimes are punished. It also means that we can never give up seeking the truth.

When members of a society take their responsibilities seriously, not avoiding the discomfort of not having an easy answer, there is a good chance that incremental improvement will occur. It may not be the ideal or perfect solution but it will be an authentic move toward renewal. I cannot help but to connect these aspirations to a phrase from the tradition to which I am committed. The Beatitudes recommend Wallander's path, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness (justice): they shall have their fill" (Matthew 5:6). Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers satisfies our need to understand our society and ourselves; what more could a well-told detective novel provide its reader?

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