Henning Mankell’s Novels Brought Sweden’s Dark Side to the World

Henning Mankell signing his books

Henning Mankell signing his books

Henning Mankell’s untimely death from cancer at the age of 67 is, without doubt, the end of an era.

Before Mankell began publishing his trendsetting pulp thrillers about the cop Kurt Wallander based in the small town of Ystad in Sweden, very few had heard of Swedish crime fiction. The little crime fiction that existed in the pre-Mankell years was seen by the progressive writers as a literary weed that had to be uprooted. The few really successful Swedish crime novelists, such as the writer couple Sjöwall-Wahlöö, who enjoyed a certain international fame in the 1970s, had a journalistic approach to literature – their books were like reports reflecting the Sweden of their time.

In the pre-Mankell era, Sweden’s main cultural export products were the films by Ingmar Bergman – such as The Seventh Seal (1956) – that were screened at film societies and in art house cinemas around the world. (Ingmar Bergman was, incidentally, Henning Mankell’s father-in-law.) And then, in the 1970s, there was ABBA – and subsequently the light touch of Swedish popular music grabbed a hold of the world through bands like Roxette and Europe in the 1980s.

Till Mankell came along people around the world were mostly reading English crime fiction. The perennially popular British detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and the American school of noir, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, still ruled the shelves. In fact, very few bookshops stocked detective novels translated from other languages.

Reinventing the crime novel

Already a well-known figure in Sweden as a theatre director, playwright, activist and serious novelist, Mankell reinvented the crime fiction genre with his first thriller in 1991, Faceless Killers, which immediately won the ‘Best Swedish Crime Novel’ award. Using the small Swedish town of Ystad as a setting, and the police procedural as a literary form, he created an image of Sweden rarely encountered before – an image of something dark lurking behind the façade of the welfare state. And at the centre of the plot was a strangely likeable and humane cop, the slightly alcoholic, slightly overweight, slightly diabetic Kurt Wallander, who in some ways personified the Swedish character.

The prolific Mankell was able to produce two to three books a year and soon became wildly popular in Sweden. It didn’t take very long for the rest of the planet to catch on. His books are estimated to have sold over 40 million copies around the world and have been made into around 45 films (with Kenneth Branagh playing Wallander in the English versions).

It didn’t take long for other writers to jump on the bandwagon. Soon enough, even the smallest Swedish towns would boast of their own crime fiction series and the entire country seemed populated by serial killers and their victims. Swedish crime fiction became a brand, selling in millions of copies and resulting in a huge boost for the publishing industry. And these thrillers were not just translated into English, but into other languages as well, such as German: many bookshops in Germany have special shelves dedicated to Swedish crime fiction.

This had interesting side effects. Following this unprecedented success of Swedish detective novels globally, bookshops have started stocking translated crime novels from other languages too – readers can now access thrillers originally written in Japanese, Chinese, Spanish or Greek, through translations.

It was my great fortune to meet Mankell on a couple of occasions. Most recently, I was in discussion with him at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011. Before we met, I asked my publisher what the stalwart was like. (We shared the same publisher before Mankell started his own publishing company Leopard.) Mankell doesn’t make small talk, my publisher replied. He’s a no nonsense guy. So when you meet him, just get to the point. And to the point we did get. At the festival – where he entertained a packed hall – he asked me in advance for my permission to manhandle me a little bit: as a part of his talk he wanted to grab me by the collar and push me around on the stage. Keeping in mind that he has a background in theatre, I of course went along with the show. The audience loved the unexpected action.

We had met once before, at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2009, where I was to interview him. I’d had an accident the previous day and half of my face was bandaged and yet, when I sat down with Mankell to discuss his future plans he wasn’t the least bothered by my weird appearance though he did stop to calmly observe at one point that my nose was dripping blood and then handed me a paper napkin. It was the last interview he planned to give that year and we chatted leisurely for about half an hour. I asked him about the last book about Kurt Wallander, The Troubled Man, which had just come out that year, and why he wanted to end one of the most successful series in Swedish publishing history. He told me of his plans to write a bunch of historical novels, as well as his autobiography. The impression he left me with was one of boundless energy.

Then, last year, he went to see his doctor regarding a bout of neck pain which was soon established as a symptom of a wide-spread cancer. He battled the cancer for over a year and a half, and kept on working till the very end.

The writer is a Swedish detective novelist based in Bengaluru; his latest comic thriller Hari, a Hero for Hire is out in October 2015. Read his full interview with Henning Mankell here: