A cold-blooded killer is targeting men with a dark past. The first to go is a seemingly harmless birdwatcher, who falls into pit of sharpened stakes. Then an orchid fancier goes missing. Blood stains at his flower shop lead Inspector Wallander to suspect foul play. Indeed, it's worse than foul, since the mounting number of victims shows signs of torture.
Meanwhile, Wallander faces a deepening family crisis as his father insists on being taken home to die. Povel Wallander may be losing his mind, but he still has a vigorous inner life focused on his art. He also recognizes that something is seriously wrong with his son's soul. "Find someone to sit with you," he tells him.
In a sign of how unstrung Wallander has become, he grows romantically attached to a suspect in the murder spree. The woman, named Vanja, was the secretary and former mistress to one of the victims, who mistreated her. A violent streak also marks the histories of the other murdered men, pointing to many people who had motives to want them dead, including estranged children, wives, lovers, and business associates.
While pouring out his soul to Vanja, Wallander has an insight triggered by his feelings for his father and Vanja's recollections of fellow sufferers of abuse. In his still agile mind, it sparks an idea of not just who did it, but why...
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Holger Eriksson, a retired car dealer and avid birdwatcher, heads out alone to his isolated observation platform. Crossing a wooden bridge over a ravine, the supports give way and he falls into a pit of sharpened bamboo stakes. According to the pathologist's report, he died after a prolonged struggle.
Death also pays a call on Povel Wallander, Inspector Wallander's father, who has been in a slow decline. The inspector has an easier time absorbing the car dealer's gruesome demise than Povel's, with its overgrowth of guilt and emotional estrangement.
As Wallander relives the torture of a father-son relationship gone wrong, a local flower dealer, Gosta Rundfeldt, is going through his own ordeal. Kidnapped and closeted in a basement for almost three weeks, he is led out into the woods, where he is tied to a tree and strangled. Later, Eugen Blomberg, a middle-aged businessman, disappears while jogging. He is found trussed up inside a body bag, drowned.
Given the obvious intent to inflict a painful death, all three murders appear to be related. The men didn't know each another, but each had a violent streak toward a wife or lover. The big break comes when Rundfeldt's secretary and former mistress, Vanja, recognizes a photo of Blomberg's final lover, Katarina, who has just given birth to Blomberg's child at a local hospital.
Vanja tells Wallander that she and Katarina were in the same group for women with dysfunctional relationships, which was run by a woman named Yvonne. Although Vanja never knew Yvonne's last name, Eriksson's former garage foreman has a dim recollection of Yvonne as the daughter of Eriksson's abused longtime mistress, Krista Habermann, who recently died of cancer.
Thinking about the death of his own father, Wallander recognizes that grief can be drenched in guilt, and that the death of Yvonne's mother may have focused her mind on the person who made her mother's life miserable: Eriksson. Crucially, he was the first to die in the murder spree. Yvonne then targeted the abusers of the other women in her counseling group, making the offenders suffer horribly.
Following this reasoning, Wallander identifies the probable next victim, a trolley driver named Max. In a race against time, he searches for Yvonne, catching up with her just as she is about to push Max in front of an oncoming train.
In the scuffle that follows, Wallander saves Max but loses his gun, which Yvonne grabs. She shoots Wallander in the shoulder and takes him hostage. As police with drawn pistols steady their aim, she forces Wallander to a getaway car. Invoking her mother's death and Povel's, Wallander coolly talks her out of it. She breaks into sobs, lowers the gun, and, while embracing him, shoots herself dead.
Sometime later, Wallander visits his father's grave with Vanja. He has felt a strong attraction to her throughout the case. In a symbolic act, he leaves his wedding ring on Povel's headstone. He had continued to wear it despite being divorced, but now he is letting go of the past.