Swedish crime writer best known for his Kurt Wallander books who was a dedicated political activist
Monday 5 October 2015
Henning Mankell, who has died aged 67, after being diagnosed with cancer last year, established almost single-handedly the global picture of Sweden as a crime writer’s ideal dystopia. He took the existing Swedish tradition of crime writing as a form of leftwing social criticism and gave it international recognition, capturing in his melancholy, drunken, bullish detective Kurt Wallander a sense of struggle in bewildered defeat that echoed round the world.
His tone is perfectly captured in the first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers (1991), when the detective comes across a murder scene: “Wallander thought of his own wife, who had left him, and wondered where to begin. A bestial murder, he thought. And if we’re really unlucky, it’ll be a double murder.”
There were other, contemporary figures of middle-aged male detectives being dragged through their future backwards as if it were a briar hedge – most obviously Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus – but Wallander was the purest example and probably the most successful one. He first appeared when Sweden was in the middle of a precipitate retreat from the optimistic utopianism of the 1960s and 70s, so that the corruption and decay of the hero found an echo in the corruption and decay of the society around him.
Rebus’s Edinburgh had never been a shining city, but Wallander picked his melancholy way like Eeyore through the thistly ruins of the New Jerusalem. It proved a remarkably popular journey. After a slow start, the 10 Wallander novels (plus a volume of short stories and a novel centred on Wallander’s daughter, Linda, in which he also featured) sold millions of copies in various languages. Two separate Swedish television series were made featuring the character, who took on a life of his own within them: both were sold around the world, as was a BBC adaptation, featuring Kenneth Branagh.
As the series progressed, Wallander seemed to become more miserable: “Every time he came home in the evening after a stressful and depressing work day, he was reminded that once upon a time he had lived there with a family. Now the furniture stared at him as if accusing him of desertion,” he reflected in the last novel (The Troubled Man, 2009), where he is also losing his memory to dementia.
The extraordinary global success of Swedish and later Norwegian crime fiction as a form of escapist literature for men had several causes. One is that police work is one of the last wholly unionised jobs in the world, so that our hero will never be sacked for anything other than gross misconduct – of which he, being the hero, is never really guilty. In the optimistic 60s, James Bond was distinguished from other middle-aged men by his licence to kill but by the 90s the policeman as a fantasy hero had a licence to keep his job. In the economic whirlwind of globalisation, this was something that a lot of frustrated middle-aged men could only dream of.
Mankell himself had never been a frustrated middle-aged man. His life was distinguished by a restless energy from the moment he went to sea as a teenager. He was born in Stockholm, the son of a lawyer, Ivar, whose wife, Ingrid, left him the next year. “It is only what many men do,” Mankell said later, about his mother’s decision to walk out. Ivar moved with his children to Sveg, a small town in the backwoods, where they lived above the courthouse until Mankell was 13, when they moved to Borås, a possibly less dull town outside Gothenburg, a few hundred miles to the south.
In those years he read voraciously. He also constructed an imaginary mother to replace the one who had left him. “I work best when imagination is as valuable as reality,” he said later. He remembered his childhood as extremely happy, and Sweden in the late 50s and early 60s as one of the best places in the world to be a child.
After three years in Borås he dropped out of school and left home, going first to Paris, and then to sea, where he worked on a freighter and loved it. In 1966 he returned to Paris and lived a bohemian life, determined to become a writer. He took part in the agitations there that led to the student uprising of 1968 but returned to work as a stagehand in Stockholm. There he wrote his first play, about Swedish colonialism. In 1973, he published a novel about the Swedish labour movement and flew to Africa on the proceeds. The continent became a second home to him, and he spent a great deal of his life there after his success made it possible, founding and then running a theatre in Mozambique from 1986 onwards.
Africa deepened and sharpened his outrage at the inequalities of the world. He campaigned against Aids and landmines; where drugs against Aids could not be afforded, he encouraged an oral history project, so that the lives and struggles of those who died might be remembered – he dreamed this would be read in a new library of Alexandria in centuries to come. “Africa has taught me that there is so much needless suffering in the world. We could stop it tomorrow: to teach every child in the world to read and write would cost no more than we in the west spend on dog food,” he said.
Most of his working life was split between novel writing and theatre work. He was extraordinarily prolific, publishing as many as three novels a year, and his sales figures eventually topped 40m. The quality might have been uneven but there was no mistaking the passion and generosity behind them. He wrote, always, about subjects he thought really mattered.
Wallander was born after Mankell’s return from a long stay in Mozambique, when he saw that Sweden had become a much more racist country than it had seemed in the 60s, when there were hardly any immigrants from outside Scandinavia there. The third in the series, The White Lioness (1993), led to his breakout success from Scandinavia.
Mankell had earlier thrown himself wholeheartedly into the leftwing politics of optimism. After returning from Paris he had taken part in the 1968 demonstrations in Stockholm against the Vietnam war and the university system, and spent much of the 70s in Norway on the fringe of a Maoist group to which his then partner belonged.
So he was perfectly placed to experience and to articulate the shock and disappointment that arrived with the end of the postwar bubble of hope and prosperity. That came earlier and more violently to Sweden than to most of western Europe, just as the bubble had inflated earlier and further there in the good years.
For the most part his books stayed closely aligned to the conventions of the 20th-century Swedish progressive aesthetic: chiefly that the rich are always morally repulsive; that Christianity is wicked, but the common decency of ordinary people is to be trusted; and that conventional respectability must always conceal and corrupt the real nature beneath, like a plaster beneath which an ulcer is silently growing. There is often some more open and honest society abroad – in the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö this was eastern Europe under Soviet rule – and the books are also marked by a profound sexual pessimism: a sense that you will find greater happiness and truer friendship among the people with whom you share an office than among those with whom you share your bed.
Yet cheerfulness keeps breaking through. There is little nihilism in Swedish noir: good and bad are always clearly distinguished all the way through to the cartoonish culmination of the genre in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy about Lisbeth Salander: the problem for the heroes is that good no longer corresponds neatly with the Swedish state. There is still no doubt that good is somewhere to be found. Evil is firmly located in reassuringly wicked villains. This is what allows the genre to perform its traditional function of reassurance despite the horror of the crimes.
The extraordinary global success of Wallander did not slow Mankell down much, nor diminish his engagement in global causes. He wrote a trilogy about an African girl who lost both legs after stepping on a landmine, and her struggles as she grows up. He wrote one novel in which a Chinese man massacres an entire family in a remote Swedish village as revenge for the treatment meted out by their ancestors to his in the US in the 19th century.
He took a strongly pro-Palestinian position, repeatedly comparing Israel to South Africa and asserting that it was building a new apartheid society, and he sailed on one of the ships that attempted to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010 and was seized by Israeli commandos. In later years he worried about the surveillance state, and warned that digital technologies were being used to make the individual transparent while governments and corporations could operate in secrecy.
He used some of his fortune for charities, endowing a children’s village in Mozambique, a prize for political theatre in Sweden, and another for writing about the north of the country, where he had spent much of his childhood. In Sveg, a museum was built in his honour in his lifetime. He bought a house outside the town and donated it for the use of writers and playwrights who needed a quiet and peaceful place to work.
His personal life showed something of the restlessness of his professional activities: he was married four times and had four sons, Thomas, Marius, Morten and Jon, by various relationships.
In 1998 he married Eva Bergman, a daughter of the film director Ingmar. She survives him.
• Henning Mankell, writer, born 3 February 1948; died 5 October 2015