Top critical review
13 people found this helpful
on 26 April 2005
After mostly enjoying the first in the Kurt Wallander series (Faceless Killers), I definitely found this one to be a significant step down in quality. Set in 1991, it starts off promisingly enough with a pair of smugglers discovering two dead men adrift in a life raft. The good samaritan criminals tow the raft closer to the Swedish shore, where it winds up washing up in Inspector Wallander's territory. For a while, the story proceeds as a straight crime procedural, as he attempts to find out who the men are and why they were killed. As usual, in the background is Wallander's shaky personal life and his coping with the death of his closest friend on the police force.
However, once it's determined that the men are from Eastern Europe, the story morphs into an international thriller. First, Major Liepa of the Latvian police arrives to try and assist on the case. Then, Wallander is himself dispatched to Latvia to help with a related murder there. Rather improbably, Wallander simply steps off the plane and is whisked away by his Latvian police liaisons. At the time, one would think the Swedish Embassy would have someone on hand make sure all went smoothly. However, this would make it harder to develop the plot, which revolves around Wallander's confusion over the forces at work and the Latvian police he's working with. Soon, the book is awash with amateur spycraft, as Wallander goes to clandestine meets with mysterious figures. Next thing you know, the dour detective has launched himself headfirst into a ridiculous scheme involving illegal border crossings, false papers, car theft, and wild shootouts. Even worse, these over the top Mission Impossible style theatrics are due to his infatuation with a woman he's only briefly met. If all of this smacks of a bad Hollywood film rather than a solid crime novel, that's unfortunately how it reads as well.
At the time of the book's writing, the Soviet Union was still in the midst of dissolution and reformers and hardliners in the USSR's various satellite republics were struggling to determine the future of their new states. Through Wallander, Mankell attempts to contrast orderly, progressive, first-world Sweden with chaotic, repressive, third-world Latvia. Alas, the city never really comes to life, and the atmosphere feels ersatz. Mankell attempts to make a connection between organized crime and the political power structure of the emerging post-Soviet states, but it kind of falls flat. It doesn't help that the characterization isn't particularly good, even for critical characters such as Wallander's platonic love interest. Like the first book, the writing is fairly straightforward and plain. One rather severe misstep involves the Latvian Major and Wallander, who are both described as having very shaky English, and yet their conversations are rendered in more or less grammatically sound, highly idiomatic English.
Note: The book was made into a film for Swedish television in 1995 which is apparently unavailable in English.