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Elementary my dear Mankell

Henning Mankell’s detective is a dark, humorless misanthrope. Yet he has become Sweden’s most famous export since Abba

By Henry Porter  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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On 20 May 1989, the writer Henning Mankell opened a telephone directory and began looking for a name. Any name. Mankell had decided to turn his hand to crime fiction. He needed a policeman, and the policeman needed a name.

He rifled through the book and stopped at W. Then he moved his fingers across one page until he came to the name Wallander. And there he stopped. Thus life was first breathed into Kurt Wallander, Sweden’s fabulously grumpy, dysfunctional fictional detective.

More than 25 million copies of Wallander novels have been sold since Mankell created the character and featured him in Faceless Killers, published in 1991. In the process the author has become Sweden’s most successful literary export.

In the southern town of Ystad, where the books are set, there are guided tours of “Wallander country,” much to Mankell’s embarrassment, while the books have been televised at home, with Krister Henriksson as the tortured detective.

What are the complexities of this dark, humorless misanthrope that make him so endearing to audiences?

Even Mankell admits that he dislikes the messily divorced, diabetic, fast-food addict that he created from his perusals of Swedish telephone directories. “I would rather be friends with Sherlock Holmes,” the author once remarked.

So what is the attraction? According to publisher and writer Julian Evans, an expert on European fiction, it is Wallander’s uncompromising self-destruction that so fascinates.

“He’s quite unsalvageable, Wallander, in a way very, very few fictional characters really are. In an existential sense, he seems close to the end, all the time. You can’t say that at all of all detectives. His woeful relationship with his daughter ... his inability to manage any female relationship. Every crime he solves or fails to solve, you still think the next thing he is going to do is just ... die.”

This is a man permanently on the edge, “a sort of walking open wound,” as Branagh describes his character, and he makes absorbing television.

Then there is the background: the bleak, unforgiving soil of Sweden’s Skane (pronounced Skonner) region in the south. “Border areas have a dynamism all their own,” Mankell says. “They set off a reflex of unease.”

And Mankell certainly knows a thing or two about borders. Born in 1948 and raised from the age of two by his father Ivan, a judge, after Henning’s mother had walked out on the family, the author-to-be joined the merchant navy at 16 in 1964 and became a stevedore on a coal and iron ore freighter.

This was his “real university,” he claims. A couple of years later, he arrived in Paris and stayed for the riots and student activism that were to grip the city in 1968. It was to be a formative period. As his publisher, Dan Israel, has remarked: “Henning and I are children of 1968.”

The author returned to Sweden to become a playwright and author, publishing his first novel, The Stone-Blaster, at 24. He later traveled extensively in Africa and in 1987 was asked to run the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique. He has held that post ever since, dividing his time between Africa and his farm near Ystad, in Sweden, writing his books in both locations.

Thus, half of the Wallander novels — with their vivid evocations of the bleak Swedish landscape and their chilling stories of serial murder — have been written in Africa, a striking contrast, to say the least, though for his part Mankell finds nothing unusual in this geographical dichotomy. “When I [first] got off the airplane in Africa, I had a curious feeling of coming home,” he once said.

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