Book Review: Victim Without a Face by Stefan Ahnhem

Title: Victim Without a Face
Author: Stefan Ahnhem
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication Date: 1 November 2015

Twitter: @stefanahnhem 

Rating: 4 out of 5


The first victim was a bully who liked using his fists. The second was a thug who favoured steel-capped boots. Their bodies bore the marks of a killer who knew their sins. A single clue was left at the scene: a class photo from 1982, with two faces neatly crossed out.
There are eighteen men and women in the photo who are still alive – and one of them is the lead detective on the case. Fabian Risk thought he’d left his schooldays behind. Now his classmates are dying for the sins of their childhood … Who is the faceless killer who’s come back to haunt them?


Thank you to Head of Zeus for providing me with a copy of Victim Without A Face in return for an honest review.

Victim Without A Face is the first novel from Swedish screenwriter Stefan Ahnhem,  better known for his work on a variety of TV and movie projects including the adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander.

The book follows Detective Fabian Risk (brilliant name!) as he, his wife Sonja and their two children from Stockholm back to his childhood home of in the Swedish coastal town of Helsingborg, hoping for a fresh start after some difficulties at work and in his private life. His plan is to spend the summer holiday with his family before taking up his new position as Detective for the Helsingborg Police Department. Unfortunately, Risk’s past looks set to catch up with him when, before he has even had chance to unpack, he is called into work to assist in a new and particularly grisly murder case in which the victim is found with a copy of Risk’s old class photograph. When a second victim appears, killed in another gruesome manner, the police are pushed to find a motive and the killer before anyone else ends up a victim.
Victim Without A Face is a gritty and particularly gruesome crime thriller. The plot is well thought out and clever. Whilst you may initially think the answer is quite straightforward, there may well be a few twists, turns and shocks that will keep the reader on their toes.  I found the story to be a captivating read and I was eager to learn the identity of the killer and to understand whether any greater motive lay behind his/her killer streak rather than merely the obvious motive raised early in the story.
Whilst set mostly in Helsingborg in Sweden, the drama does move briefly to Denmark and I found it interesting to read about the rivalry between the two neighbouring police forces, sometimes to the detriment of the investigation.
I found myself interested by the characters in Victim Without A Face. The protagonist, Fabian Risk, is quite a frustrating character. He is a workaholic, putting his job before his family despite his best efforts to resist doing so. Having been warned on several occasions by his new boss and colleagues that they work as a team, he consistently runs off to investigate possible leads on his own rather than running the idea past colleagues first. I can certainly understand their annoyance with this. The only person who seems to understand his need to follow his own path is a female Danish detective who puts her own career on the line to help Risk in his attempts to catch the killer. As the investigations proceeds, Risk is forced to understand that each decision he makes could have far-reaching and quite drastic consequences. The supporting characters are well-thought, flawed but likeable, including Risk’s new boss Astrid Tuvesson, his colleagues in the Swedish police and his female counterpart in the Danish police force – all interesting individuals whom I would have liked to learn more about. At the other end of the scale is the ruthless and relentless killer whom both terrified and intrigued me in equal measures.
The story considers the potentially far-reaching consequences of bullying and as the investigation progresses, Risk re-evaluates his actions as a school boy. He comes to the realisation that turning a blind eye to the actions of others is tantamount to enabling those actions and Risk thereby holds himself guilty of involvement by omission. Ahnhem includes excerpts from a bullying victim’s diary within the story and it can be quite difficult to read when you imagine a child suffering through the torment enforced upon him by the bullies.
I should point out that this is a particularly long book and I felt that some of it could have been slightly condensed, however I thought it was a great read overall! Thumbs up also to the translator who seems to have done a great job in creating a very readable book from the original Swedish version.
Surprisingly, there were a few moments of humour courtesy of a toll booth worker on the Øresund Bridge, along with a little wave towards Ahnhem’s previous work on Wallander. This does give a bit of light relief amid an otherwise very serious and sombre book.
Victim Without A Face is a gripping, tense and sinister thriller, with the dark and chilling atmosphere characteristic of the Nordic Noir genre. It is a disturbing, thought-provoking and genuinely scary story that left me double checking the door lock before I went to bed! The book certainly held some sort of gruesome appeal to me as my interest was gripped from the very first page. A superb example of a Nordic Noir/Scandi crime thriller.
I believe that the book is intended to be one of three, with the second book Ninth Grave being a prequel and then a third book set two years after Victim Without a Face. I will definitely be picking up copies of the next two books. I also understand that the book has already been commissioned for TV and I imagine that given Ahnhem’s experience as a screenwriter, we should soon be viewing a polished and gripping drama.
About the Author

Stefan Ahnhem is an established screenwriter for both TV and film. He also serves on the board of the Swedish Writers Guild. He lives in Stockholm. Victim Without a Face is his first novel.

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