Henning Mankell: Hot and cold

He is revered as a crime writer in Sweden – and as a theatre director in Mozambique. Now his greatest creation is about to hit our TV screens

There's a grumpy new divorced, middle-aged and opera-loving detective on the box this weekend.

So far, so predictably Morse-like, but what's distinctive about Inspector Kurt Wallander, the eponymous policeman in BBC1's new Sunday-night crime drama Wallander, is not that he's being played by Kenneth Branagh (although that's eye-catching enough), but that the character and setting are Swedish. Agatha Christie's superannuated Belgian moustache-waxer Hercule Poirot aside, we haven't had a non-Anglo-Saxon sleuth on our TV screens since Barry Foster trod the mean canal-sides of 1970s Amsterdam as Piet Van Der Valk.

But Wallander is in a different league to Van Der Valk – or at least its source novels are. Indeed, Inspector Wallander is Sweden's most successful literary export – outgrossing Harry Potter in Germany (greatly to that nation's credit) and selling more than 25 million copies worldwide – and they have made a star of the detective's creator.

Henning Mankell, born in Stockholm 60 years ago, produced his first Wallander novel in 1991, and there have been eight more since. Wallander has turned Mankell into a multimillionaire – not bad proceeds, given the kind of character Wallander is – a lugubrious detective with a fast-food habit, diabetes and a messy private life. Even Mankell himself says he is not particularly attracted to Wallander as an individual. "I would rather be friends with Sherlock Holmes."

Mankell's Wallander novels are the best-selling spearhead of a worldwide wave of Scandinavian crime fiction that really broke in 1994 with Danish writer Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. From Norway there have come Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum, and Mankell's compatriots Eva-Marie Liffner and the late Stieg Larsson. But it is Mankell and Wallander (the name was picked from the Stockholm telephone directory) who have done most to popularise the wintry charms of the Nordic whodunnit.

And yet in many respects Mankell is an atypical crime writer, less attracted to the genre for its own pleasures than for its possibilities as a conduit for his social concerns. "I could never write a crime story just for the sake of it, because I always want to talk about certain things," he says, citing John Le Carré as a key influence and Macbeth as the best crime story he has ever read.

The Shakespeare reference hints at the fact that Mankell is equally at home in the theatre as he is in front of a word processor. Indeed, he has a whole other outlet for his creative energies, about as far from small-town Sweden as is imaginable. Mankell has had a lifelong fascination with Africa, and owns and runs his own theatre in Maputo in Mozambique. He is heavily involved with Aids charities and spends half the year in Sweden and half in Mozambique – "one foot in the sand, the other in the snow", as Mankell puts it.

This extraordinary life began in the late 1940s amid the Christmas tree forests of north-central Sweden, in Harjedalen province, where Mankell's father moved after his wife left him and Mankell was only two years old. Mankell claims to have asked each of his four wives whether they could spot the motherless child within him, and each apparently replied that they could not. (His fourth wife, by the way, is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, and the legendary film director was apparently an avid Wallander reader.)

Ivan Mankell was a judge, and the young Henning was brought up in a flat above a courtroom, gaining an early interest in legal systems. And it was here also that he absorbed the rural settings that were to become such a distinctive feature of his Wallander novels, while simultaneously dreaming of hot, faraway places.

The lad didn't take to school, and aged 16 in 1964, Henning joined the merchant navy, becoming a stevedore on a Swedish ship carrying coal and iron ore. He claims that this was his "real university", visiting such romantic destinations as Middlesbrough no fewer than 25 times. He finally alighted two years later in Paris, at a time of student activism and intense debate. Mankell's long-time Norwegian publisher, Dan Israel, who has known him since he was 20, says: "The important thing to realise about Henning is that he and I are children of 1968. We are interested in how people live in other parts of the world, and in what is just and what is not just."

Mankell returned to Sweden and a career in the theatre. He wrote his first play, Amusement Park (about Swedish colonial interests in 19th-century South America) at the age of 20, and his debut novel, The Stone-Blaster, at 24. It was also during this period that he first fulfilled his boyhood dream of travelling to Africa, a visit to the then Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau followed by a stint in Zambia. It was 1987 when the invitation to run the Teatro Avenida in Maputo came, and he has been there ever since.

"He has expended a lot of time and energy and a great deal of money in Africa," says his English publisher Christopher MacLehose. "One of the reasons I like Henning and his books so much is that he never stops trying to mend the world. I think of Henning as a saint, although he would be disgusted to be described as one."

Others, however, have found him arrogant and a bit grand. One journalist who had interviewed Mankell, while agreeing he was "on the side of the angels", says he respected the writer more than he liked him. Dan Israel, who in the past has described Mankell as possessing a "ruthless quality", now elucidates, saying that "he is a man who almost lives for his writing", shunning publishing parties and the like as much as is commercially possible.

Mankell owns a farm on the southernmost tip of Sweden where the Wallander novels are set, and the real town of Ystad receives pilgrimages from German fans eager to spot their hero.

"The Ystad police station where Wallander works is a microcosm of the country as a whole," says the author and Mankell fan Paul Binding. "The idea of the whole Swedish model – the perfect social democracy – has foundered of late. What has happened in recent years, especially since the end of the Cold War, is that Sweden isn't an exceptional country any more. It's a West European country like any other – and in a sense maybe it always was. It thought it wasn't – and that lies behind the novels." Christopher MacLehose agrees: "All of Henning's books – except the ones about Africa – are an elegy to the broken socialist dream of Sweden. I'm not saying that he thought Olof Palme [the reforming Social Democrat Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1986] would have produced a paradise but Henning still can't get used to the idea that Sweden has to such an extent failed to deliver its social democratic dream."

It's this element of social commentary that give the Wallander novels a resonance beyond the normal limits of the crime genre. "In Sweden part of the popularity with Henning is that he showed the problems of the welfare state when it more or less collapsed," Israel says. "It's a depiction of a decayed welfare state that is recognisable in lots of other countries, as are such universal topical subjects as the abuse of children and women."

None of this would count for anything, though, if Mankell didn't deliver on the suspense. As Israel says, "The most important part is that Henning Mankell is a marvellous writer. He is a storyteller who puts down a lot of effort in how to portray people and places. This is the main reason he is popular: he is a great author."

A life in brief

Born: Stockholm, 3 February 1948.

Family: Father was a judge; didn't see his mother, who left a year after his birth, until he was 15. He has been married four times and has four children. Fourth wife is Eva Bergman, daughter of Ingmar Bergman.

Early life: Raised by his father in a flat above a courtroom in the Harjedalen province of Sweden. Left school at 16 to become a merchant seaman for two years. After a sojourn in Paris, returned to Sweden in 1968 to embark on a career in theatre.

Career: Burst on to the literary scene in 1973 with publication of his first novel, 'The Stone-Blaster'. His most popular creation, Inspector Wallander, debuted in 'Faceless Killers' (1991). The Wallander series has sold 20 million books worldwide. Mankell splits his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he is the head of Teatro Avenida in Maputo.

He says: "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."

They say: "There's a belief that crime fiction should be about little old ladies solving murders in country villages. But Mankell is modern, and he makes you reflect on society." Ruth Rendell

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