An old farmer living in isolation in the Swedish countryside wakes up in the middle of the night to a familiar set of aches and pains. What's unfamiliar is that there's no noise from the horse in the neighbour's stable. The lights are on in the house next door and one of the windows appears to be smashed. He contacts the police and Inspector Kurt Wallender responds to find an unsettling bloodbath at the scene.
The neighbour lies butchered on the floor and next to him, his wife lies with noose tied in an unusual fashion around her neck and is fast approaching her own death. She's rushed to hospital where her final word, recorded by the officer watching over her, is 'foreigner'. When this is leaked to the press, not only does it bring disquiet to the team of officers in whom trust has been compromised, but it stirs up the narrow minds of right wing agitators who are already at odds with Sweden's immigration system.
When another murder takes place, Wallender is forced to prioritise. This case is where all the energy lies and provides a strong contrast to the cerebral slow-burn of the rural affair.
The stories that follow come together well as the plots unfold, the key elements binding slowly to create a nicely-paced whole.
There's a fine cast of characters with relationships that exist in a fragile balance. We have an old detective who is meticulous and dying, a woman on the switchboard who will to the extra-mile if treated right and who knows all the station's gossip, Wallender's father who has painted a version of the same image throughout his life and whose mind is rapidly crumbling and a prosecutor who is firm, strong and prepared to cut corners if it serves a case, but will not bend an inch if justice is in jeopardy. Throw in an ex-wife and a compelling daughter even though we barely get to know her and you have a terrific ensemble.
The key player is, of course, Wallender himself. He's a satisfying mix of traits: a cerebral cop who can play the action hero when required; a liberal who's an old-school conservative deep down; a damaged human being who is frequently a bit of an arse. One particular incident involving the attempted seduction of the young prosecutor shows not only his flaws but his frailty. In spite of several unpleasant characteristics, the veneer of charm is just thick enough to cover the cracks and keep a reader like me on board.
Bar a few irritations with the self-questioning and over-analysis in the detective's mind, this is a strong novel. Essentially, Faceless Killers (US) a dark canvas where clever use of flashes of light allow contradictions to live together successfully on the page. Unlike with the British television series, I'll definitely be back for more.