Swedish writer Mankell's graceful, unadorned prose provides an affecting voice for his melancholy protagonist, Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander, whose own mid-life difficulties give way to the pursuit of a cunning serial killer.
As the book opens, a woman receives information that her mother has been murdered along with four nuns in an African convent, the crime hushed up. Then an old man who writes bird poetry is impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes embedded in a ditch on his property while the woman watches from his bird tower.
Wallander, just home from a pleasant trip to Italy with his father, a rejuvenation of their taciturn relationship, investigates a break-in at a flower shop from which nothing was taken, receives reports of a growing vigilante militia movement and eventually discovers the body of the bird poet. Meanwhile the reader learns that the flower shop proprietor is a captive, slowly starving. He is missing more than a week - supposedly on an orchid-buying trip - before anyone realizes.
The grisly narrative builds slowly, in plain, unhurried cadences. The fits, starts and frustrations of police procedure mingle with Wallander's concerns for his father and plans for a future with his lover, Baiba - all against a thrum of background tension - the bound, terrified man, the woman ticking off plans on a meticulous schedule, selecting her next victim.
As the murder count rises, Wallander and his team delve into the background of the victims, uncovering dark secrets, making tenuous connections, inching toward a solution that horrifies them all. Mankell's ("Fearless Killers," "Sidetracked") plot organization and pacing is masterful and his perplexing, atmospheric story is all the more gripping delivered in measured, understated prose.