Late one night, a man who loves birds and writes poems about them, walks towards a watchtower in his farm to observe the migrating birds. As he is walking over plank which covers a ditch, the plank gives way and he falls into the ditch, in which bamboo spikes have been inserted. Impaled on the spikes, he dies a slow death. Police arrive and discover that someone had planned this murder. That person had sawed off the plank and had inserted the spikes in the ditch.
Around the same time, the police get a call from an assistant of a florist complaining that someone had broken into the shop. There is evidence of break-in but nothing is stolen. The police though find a pool of blood and are puzzled by this break-in but not for long. The assistant discovers that the florist, who was supposed to have gone to Africa in search of rare orchids, had not taken the plane. His dead body turns up tied to a tree. There is evidence that the florist has been tortured before he is killed. The police start to believe that the murderer is the same in both the cases and start investigating if there is any linkage between these two. The twists and turns the investigation takes until the final denouement forms the rest of the story.
Mankell drives the story, in what I can term as the Hitchcockian mode. By this I am referring to the technique which Hitchcock perfected in his films, that of providing more details to the audience than to the on-screen characters. Mankell too provides us with details which are not available to the police. When the police based on data available to them, come to wrong but logical conclusion, the reader starts getting involved in the investigation and follows the logical thinking of the police more closely to find out how they eventually land on the correct path. Right in the first chapter, Mankell makes it known to the reader that killer is a female but the police based on the brutality of the crime, for most part of the book is looking for a male murderer. This increases the tension and keeps the reader engaged.
Using this technique, Mankell builds the story to a pulse racing climax. The road taken to arrive at the climax is a torturous one, with lot of dead ends leading to backtracking by the investigating team, spending sleepless nights to gather evidence, digging deep into past records and following up every clue even at the cost of physical exhaustion. Due to the work ethic of the police department and aided by a bit of luck, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slowly start falling in place. As this is happening, the killer is plotting the next murder. The way these two paths merge makes for a very thrilling finale.
‘Faceless Killers’ is the title of one of Mankell’s novel and that phrase is a good representation of Mankell’s main concerns. Mankell is concerned with killers, who are maladjusted and angry with the society at large, over real and perceived apathy of the state and lack of justice. This makes them gruesome killers and there is no relationship between the killer and the victim. Not only the killers but the victims are also equally faceless. While Mankell’s point is to delve both into the state of society and into the depths of the human mind, neither is done in adequate measure. They just form an interesting backdrop for the crime. The past of the killer and the victims are perfunctorily painted and we end up empathizing with neither of them.
In contrast, Mankell spends a lot of time humanizing the protagonist, the melancholic Inspector Kurt Wallander. We are told in detail about his family life: he wife has divorced him, he has a troubled relationship with his father and he is trying to understand his young daughter, who lives on her own. Wallander’s interaction with his father, his new found woman and his daughter take up quite a bit of space in the novel. On one hand, it helps in getting a good human picture of a police Inspector, struggling with his personal demons, questioning whether it is worth being dedicated to the police force which pays him lot less than what a corporation would pay for a security officer and slowly realizing that he cannot be anything other than a policeman. This helps in generating empathy not only for Wallander but also towards policeman in general. On the other hand, it tends to be a drag on the story, especially when it criminal side of the story is building up nicely. In most Mankell’s books I always get the feeling that we could do away with 50 pages and the novel would still be as effective, if not better.
Inspite of the shortcomings, Mankell is a very important addition to Scandinavian crime writing. If you love crime fiction, you will surely love Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.