Thursday 27 October 2016

The master of the oeuvre

The death of Wallander creator Henning Mankell leaves fans of 'Nordic noir' bereft

Published 08/10/2015 | 02:30

Huge success: Author Henning Mankell
Huge success: Author Henning Mankell
Kenneth Branagh as Wallander in the BBC adaptations of his popular novels.

Henning Mankell, who died of cancer aged 67 on Monday, was the most famous Swedish literary export since August Strindberg; noted especially for his 10 novels about the lugubrious detective Kurt Wallander, he sold more than 35 million books worldwide.

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Mankell created his fictional policeman in 1991, but it was not until after the Millennium - by which time there were nine Wallander novels - that he became an international success.

Scandinavian detective fiction - often referred to as "Nordic noir" - had begun to make headway in Britain and Ireland in the 1990s, with the publication of the Danish author Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow; the Norwegians Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum followed, as did Mankell's compatriot Stieg Larsson, whose posthumous "Millennium Trilogy" was a publishing sensation.

By 2010, Mankell's books were so popular that the BBC had commissioned two television drama series starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. It also screened two separate Swedish-language series, starring Krister Henriksson and Rolf Lassgard as Wallander.

There is a density in Mankell's characterisation that is unusual in crime fiction. Kurt Wallander is divorced, depressed and diabetic; he is self-destructive; eats unhealthily; drinks too much; and has difficult relationships with both his grown-up daughter and his father - an artist who suffers from dementia and paints an endless series of landscapes featuring sunsets and a single grouse.

The cases that consume Wallander involve racial violence, drugs, child abuse, butchery and torture; and the Sweden which Wallander inhabits perhaps surprised those readers steeped in the notion that the country is some kind of social democratic utopia. Furthermore, Mankell - who called himself a "humanitarian socialist" - believed that failure of the authorities to find the killer of Sweden's prime minister Olof Palme, shot dead in 1986, created what he called a "dangerous scepticism" about the Swedish justice system.

The Wallander books are based in Ystad, a small port on the edge of the bleak, haunting landscape of Skane in the south of Sweden. Mankell knew the area well, having had a farm there since the early 1980s. The landscape of the novels is as integral to the stories as Oxford is to Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse and Los Angeles to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

Mankell admitted to "a Calvinist attitude to hard work". He rewrote the opening pages of each of his books "at least 15 times" and, like Agatha Christie, constructed his books backwards, starting with the last chapter first.

Unlike Christie, however, for Mankell the crime novel was not about escapism.

"I could never write a detective fiction set in a country vicarage," he once said. Rather the form was useful to him as social commentary, even social action: "The fundamental driving force for me is to create a change in the world we live in... It is about exploitation, plundering and degradation. I have a small possibility to participate in the resistance. Most of the things that I do are part of a resistance, a form of solidarity work."

Thus Mankell was less interested in action - car chases, punch-ups, gunfights - than in Wallander's tortuous thought processes, in questions of morality and personal responsibility: "I work in an old tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks… I could never write a crime story just for the sake of it, because I always want to talk about certain things in society."

The best crime story ever written, he maintained, was Macbeth, which he described as "a terrible allegory about the corrupting tendency of power".

Among those he cited as influences was John le Carré, whom he admired for the way he analyses "the contradictions inside man, between men, and between man and society".

Perhaps fortunately for the popularity of his books, Mankell's political certainties were not shared by his fictional hero. The author's enthusiasm for the Russian and Chinese Revolutions could seem curiously naive to a 21st-century audience, and he even expressed an understanding of the excesses of the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe: "Whether what Mugabe is doing now is crazy is one matter," he said in 2010. "But you can't say because he is doing bad things now he has always done bad things. You judge then and you judge what happens afterwards."

Mankell was born in Stockholm on February 3, 1948. His mother left when he was a year old and he did not see her again until he was 15. Years later he said: "She couldn't stand having children, which is a terrible thing for a child to deal with, but really she just behaved as many men do."

His father, a judge, brought up his son and daughter, Helena, in a flat above a courtroom in the Harjedalen province of Sweden. It was the beginning of Henning's fascination with the Swedish justice system. The Mankells were also musical - violinists, organists and composers. The riven family was joined at their home in the village of Sveg by Henning's paternal grandmother, who taught Henning to write when he was six.

He later recalled: "The first thing I wrote was a one-page summary of Robinson Crusoe... it was the moment I became an author."

He enjoyed reading tales of African exploration, and created an imaginary mother to replace the one he had lost. Later he was to speak of "the forces of the imagination" that had "the same value as the real world": "The really strange thing was that when I first properly met my real mother, when I was 15, I actually preferred the mother I had created. Not because she was soft and loving, but because she was very tough and she didn't spoil me. That's what I wanted."

In 1961 the family moved to Boras, near Gothenburg. But at 16 Henning left school and enrolled in Sweden's merchant navy, ferrying coal and iron ore to Europe and America ("I ended up going to Middlesbrough 10 or 12 times").

From 1966 to 1968 he lived in Paris, then returned to Sweden where he found work as a stagehand in Stockholm. He wrote a play, and the money it made allowed him to make his first trip to Africa, in 1972. It was the start of a relationship that lasted for the rest of his life. "I immediately saw things that I wouldn't have seen if I'd had a perspective only from Europe. I would say that the African experience has made me a better writer and also a better human being. I have a distance to Europe. I can see what is working well in our part of the world and what is not."

In 1973 he published his first novel, The Stone-Blaster, about an old man looking back on his life and on Swedish society, and "the need for solidarity". Inspector Wallander made his first appearance in Faceless Killers (1991), Mankell taking the name of his hero from the telephone directory. The author had returned to Sweden after a prolonged stay in Mozambique, finding in his home country a new mood of xenophobia and racism: "For me these things seem to have the same roots as crime, so it seemed right to use a crime plot to write about them. I wasn't looking to write a crime novel. But examining a crime has always been an efficient way to hold a mirror up to the contradictions and stresses in a society. Contradictions both between men, and within men. The Greeks knew this 2,500 years ago. Medea is about a woman who murdered her children."

Subsequent titles in the Wallander series were The Dogs of Riga (1992); The White Lioness (1993), set partly in South Africa; The Man Who Smiled (1994); Sidetracked (1995); The Fifth Woman (1996); One Step Behind (1997); Firewall (1998); and The Pyramid (1999). After apparently ending the Wallander series in 1999, Mankell wrote a 10th and "definitely" final book, The Troubled Man, which was published in English in 2011.

In recent years, Mankell had divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he had run Teatro Avenida in Maputo since 1987. He wrote many of the Wallander stories there, and also campaigned relentlessly against the spread of AIDs.

He wrote 25 non-Wallander novels and more than that amount of plays. His other books include Comedia Infantil (1995), about a prophetic street child, and Depths (2006), a historical novel set in the Stockholm archipelago at the outbreak of WWI about a naval engineer who murders people and cats.

He also published books for children and novels on African themes, including a trilogy about a young African girl, Sofia, who lost her legs when she stepped on a landmine.

He remained a keen political activist and, in 2010, he was arrested in an attack by the Israeli forces on 'Sofia', one of the aid ships attempting to break the Israeli embargo of the Gaza strip.

He was subsequently deported to Sweden and later accused Israel of murder and piracy.

"Our idea had been a non-violent, non-fighting back method. But we soon realised the Israelis had chosen the real, real ugly solution to attack in international water," Mankell said. "It was only when I got on my flight home that I realised that people had died in the attack."

Among many awards, Mankell received the Swedish Mystery Academy Prize in 1991; the German Crime Prize (1999); and the Macallan CWA Gold Dagger Award (2001).

He was co-founder, with Ole Søndberg and Lars Björkman, of the Yellow Bird film company, which brought the Wallander novels to the screen.

Mankell was four-times married and had four children. He is survived by his fourth wife, Eva Bergman, whom he married in 1998, the daughter of the film director Ingmar Bergman.

In the final years of his life he wrote a four-part TV drama about Ingmar Bergman.

"There are all sorts of similarities between him and me," he said in 2011.

"Certainly, I know what it's like to be obsessed."

How Wallander kickstarted a whole genre

If anyone can claim to have started the craze for Scandinavian TV crime dramas, it's Henning Mankell. His dark and dense Wallander novels were adapted for television by the BBC in 2008 and starred Kenneth Branagh.

But it was the success of that show that attracted British and Irish viewers to the moodier and much better Swedish original, which was then shown by BBC4 and gave us a taste for what's come to be known as Nordic noir.

If the Swedish Wallander was good, The Killing was breathtaking, a hugely accomplished Danish series starring Sofie Grabol as a Copenhagen policewoman who's about to retire when a teenage girl goes missing, dragging her into a nightmarish case.

That grim tale was brilliantly told over three gripping seasons, attracting an impressive international audience, selling well in DVD box set and inspiring a US remake. Needless to say, it wasn't as good.

Scandinavian crime dramas used movie standard production values and had the self-confidence to move slowly, explore characters and build suspense and dread gradually. They did things differently, and better.

In The Bridge, Sweden and Denmark were joined by the discovery of a dead body on a sea bridge connecting the two countries, a situation that threw together two very different and equally dysfunctional police detectives. The Bridge had a sense of humour, and sexual tension in spades.

Scandinavian TV drama has now become a byword for excellence, as witnessed by Channel 4's screenings of the excellent political thriller Borgen, also a big box-set seller. But newer shows like the police thriller Arne Dahl and the gloomy Norwegian conspiracy series Mammon prove that the Scandinavian uprising is far from finished.

- Paul Whitington

Irish Independent

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