Victim Without a Face | Stefan Ahnhem | 2016 (English edn) | Head of Zeus | 580p | Review copy | Buy the book
Detective Fabian Risk has left Stockholm with his wife and two children to make a new start in Helsingborg, the town where he grew up. But the past is about to catch up with him in more ways than one. Fabian is supposed to be spending the summer on vacation but his new boss calls him in six weeks early. A dead body has been found, his hands sawn off, left to die in a room with door handles he couldn’t move. With him is a photograph of a school class, taken years before. The victim is on it, his face crossed out. Shortly afterwards another of the people from the class is found dead, his feet crushed. With him is a black marker pen. The police have been left to cross his face out. It’s no surprise Fabian has been called in. He is on the photo. He too was a member of the class. And the police need to discover a motive quickly, before everyone else on that picture is gruesomely murdered, including Fabian.
So begins a powerfully gritty and, at times, gruesome police investigation that covers both Sweden and Denmark. As the body count rises relentlessly, the increasingly desperate police take risks, gambling with their jobs not to mention their lives. The case becomes more and more personal to Fabian – how could it not, he knows the victims? – and he more than anyone else, except perhaps a female detective in Denmark, is prepared to enter the darkest of places to hunt this killer down. But in this world that is no guarantee of success and there are significant consequences for each of the decisions made.
Victim Without a Face is a most compelling read. It truly does get under the skin. I was driven to know the identity and motives of the killer. The author and the translator (Rachel Willson-Broyles) have done a fine job in structuring and presenting a complex plot, moved on by a host of well-rounded characters, whether victim, detective or bystander, and creating a most sinister and chilling mood that barely lifts until the last page.
However, while I was driven to read Victim Without a Face, almost compulsively, I did have a few issues with it which did mar my enjoyment. I think that the length has something to do with this. It is a very long book, at just under 600 pages, and I feel that it could have done with a major chop. There is far too much incidental and unnecessary information for me, as well as pages of secondary story lines which I would have preferred dropped. The most obvious example of this is the Danish police story line. It didn’t help that I found this thread of the novel really unpleasant, so much so I had to skim some of it. The main plot is also very gruesome in places but I can cope with that. What I found more difficult to cope with were hundreds of pages of increasingly relentless gloom. But this is Scandi Noir and so this is far more likely to be my fault than the book’s (I’m not a big reader of this genre). As I say, most of my issues with the novel would have been eased with a reduction of length and a tougher edit.
While I didn’t find Victim Without a Face a particularly enjoyable read – I felt quite grumpy reading it – I never thought about not finishing it. The plot is very clever and pleasingly complex. There are several fabulous, shocking twists which gave me a jolt and it was almost impossible to predict what would happen next. The killer is ruthless and so it is possibly fitting that so too is the novel. It is driven towards its conclusion with powerful determination and dedication. There is no room for comfort. The killer must be caught and nothing else, nobody else, matters.
Incidentally, Fabian Risk…. what a great name!