I had the very great pleasure last month of interviewing Henning Mankell (right), whose latest novel, THE TROUBLED MAN, will be the last outing for Mankell’s iconic protagonist, Kurt Wallander. The interview ran a lot like this:
Forget Stieg Larsson. Henning Mankell, the author of the Kurt Wallander novels, is the man who put modern Scandinavian crime writing on the map.
With 30 million books sold worldwide, Wallander is one of fiction’s great police detectives. And yet the biggest mystery surrounding Mankell’s latest novel, THE TROUBLED MAN, is why he would choose to kill off Kurt Wallander.
“Well,” says Mankell, “the truth is that ten years ago I decided that the Wallander novel I was writing would be his last case (laughs). But in the last number of years I started to feel that there was one more story in him, but that this story would be about Wallander investigating himself and his own life. And you can see, when you finish reading the novel, that there’s really nothing more to be said about him, that he has nothing more to say about himself. So this is why it must be the last Wallander story.”
Despite his fame, the award-winning and best-selling Mankell is unassuming and quietly spoken, a serious but self-deprecating man with a neat line in dry humour. In fact, it’s tempting to believe that Kurt Wallander bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator.
Mankell laughs aloud at the suggestion. “Well, I believe Wallander is a cheerful person. It is not true that Wallander is a mirror to myself, but perhaps he is a mirror in one respect, and that is that I too have a cheerful personality.”
A ‘cheerful personality’ is not a trait a fan would automatically apply to Wallander, especially those who have seen the rather glum Kenneth Branagh play the part during the recent Wallander series. Mankell, on the other hand, believes that of all the actors to play the detective, including those in his native Sweden, Branagh comes closest to capturing the essence of Wallander.
“Very much so,” he says appreciatively. “I was very pleased when Kenneth Branagh came to me about making the Wallander films, because he is a very serious actor and director. And of course he has that experience of directing Shakespeare, which is perhaps why he made such a success of the films. I liked them very much. Actually, [the producers] might be annoyed with me for saying this, because it might be a secret, I don’t know, but Kenneth Branagh will be making more Wallander films in the near future. I think his films really capture the spirit of the books. They seem to strip away everything and make them bare, in the way that Shakespeare could strip back a stage to its bare essentials.”
Mankell, who is also a playwright, and who writes teleplays for TV, published his first novel in 1977, although it would be 20 years later before the first Wallander novel, THE FACELESS KILLERS, appeared.
“Well, I didn’t set out to write crime novels,” he explains. “In the 1980s, I left Sweden to travel and live abroad, to get a sense of how life is lived beyond the Swedish way, to broaden my mind as a writer. And when I came back again, a spirit of xenophobia seemed to have taken hold in the country. And xenophobia, to me, is a crime, so it made sense to address that by writing a crime novel. So the subject came first, and then the way of writing about it came after.”
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Swedish husband-and-wife writing team who created the Martin Beck series, were early influences.
“Oh yes, very much so. They published their first novel when I was 17, which is a very formative age, and I thought the first four novels were very, very strong. After that I thought they got a little weaker, but that is perhaps understandable, as Wahloo was in poorer health. He died just a year after the first novel was published.
“But I think if we talk about the influence of crime writing,” he says, “I think it is an old and ancient thing. Take the classical Greek theatre, look at Medea. That play has a woman who kills her two children for the sake of jealousy. If that’s not a crime story, I don’t know what is. And Shakespeare too, he knew the value of writing about crime. And Dostoevsky, he had much to say about crime in society.”
When it comes to specifically Swedish crime fiction, some theorists have pinpointed the murder in 1986 of the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, as the catalyst that sparked the phenomenon. Does Mankell agree?
“No. Absolutely not.”
Nonetheless, Mankell acknowledges that Palme’s death had a convulsive effect on Sweden. In THE TROUBLED MAN, for example, the possibility that Palme was in reality a Russian spy is brought up on a number of occasions.
“There was an element in society that believed that,” Mankell says, “a right-wing conservative element. But then, at the time there were all kinds of attempts to discredit Palme. For instance, there was a rumour that he was mentally unbalanced, because he visited a mental institution so often. Well, yes, he did - because his mother was living there at the time. People would tell him he needed to address these rumours, but he didn’t seem to care. He was a brilliant man. I think that Sweden would probably have changed if he had not died when he did, but I believe that it would not have changed so dramatically, or in the way it did.”
A moral desire to explore the wrongs undermining Swedish society underpins much of Mankell’s work, but he is not content to play the armchair warrior and simply write about a commitment to righting wrongs. For many years now he has been working, unheralded, as a writer and director of a theatre in Maputo, in Mozambique. He also donates a sizeable portion of his earnings to charity, has co-founded a publishing company dedicated to unearthing young Swedish and African writers, and last year he was on board the MS Sofia as part of the flotilla attempting to break the embargo on the Gaza Strip.
Given the opportunity, it’s a journey Mankell would be only too happy to repeat.
“Oh yes, most definitely,” he says enthusiastically. “I believe that if you have a political conscience, then it’s not enough to write about it, it’s important to act. Of course, the trouble is that I am banned from entering Israel for the next ten years as a result of last year’s flotilla. But then, I wasn’t attempting to enter Israel, I was trying to enter Gaza, and I think it’s important to remind people that the Israeli blockade is illegal. It helps such things if there are people involved whose name is known, and if I am one of those people, then I will do all I can do to help.”
Previous to THE TROUBLED MAN, Mankell’s novels were more literary offerings such as KENNEDY’S BRAIN (2007) and DANIEL (2010). With Wallander exiting stage left, is Mankell leaving crime fiction behind?
“If you look at the books I’ve written,” he says, “only twenty-five per cent or so are crime novels. And I would never say that I will never write another crime story. If the idea arises, and it is a crime story idea, then that is what I will write.
“In the past I have written about Wallander’s daughter, Linda, she was the main character in one novel [BEFORE THE FROST (2005)]. Perhaps it’s possible that Linda could come to the fore in future novels, and that her father would be there in the background. That’s certainly a possibility.
“All I can tell you now is that my next novel, the one I’m working on now, is set in the 19th century in Mozambique, about a Swedish woman who ran the biggest brothel in Maputo. Where did she come from? One day she was the biggest tax-payer in the city, the next she was gone. Who was she? My account is purely fiction, and I couldn’t say even with the subject matter that it’s a crime novel. But after that, who knows?”
Henning Mankell’s THE TROUBLED MAN is published by Harvill Secker on March 31st.
This interview first appeared in the Evening Herald
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.