Today we mark the passing of Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, who succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 67. Mankell is best known as the creator of the Kurt Wallander series set in the tiny hamlet of Ystad. Wallander is an intelligent but brooding detective who makes for a gritty hero. Alcoholic, overweight, and aging, he faces the difficulties of life with a crusty pessimism. Mankell once said he came up with the name Kurt Wallander by opening the Ystad phone book and randomly picking a name. One wonders what the real-life Wallander makes of this?
Many in the United States were introduced to Inspector Wallander through PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series, starring Kenneth Branagh. If you’ve only experienced the dramatic interpretation, I highly recommend you pick up a few of the books. Mankell writes in a syntax that can best be described as stark, which meshes nicely with his Scandinavian settings. When I read these books, I always think of the color grey and a cool, misty landscape.
Here are a couple of good entry points into Mankell’s work.
One Step Behind: This is the sixth book in the Wallander series. One Midsummer’s eve, (a holiday in Sweden that celebrates the summer solstice), three college students are murdered and their bodies concealed. The discovery of these bodies coincides with the violent death of one of Wallander’s colleagues, and then yet another murder. Wallander must find the connection between these deaths and apprehend a possible serial killer, while also dealing with his own failing health.
Before the Frost: This is the tenth installment in the Wallander series. Here the focus shifts to Wallander’s adult daughter, Linda. Linda has finished her police training and is waiting to start work when a childhood friend disappears and she is drawn into the investigation. Linda shares many characteristics with her father and is equally as compelling a character. The fraught relationship between father and daughter adds to the narrative.
I would be remiss not to mention Ebba Segerberg, who translated both of these books from Swedish into English. It is no coincidence that my two favorite Mankell works come to us via her gifts.
While Mankell is a powerhouse and truly irreplaceable, we can take comfort in the fact that he helped pioneer a genre filled with prolific and talented writers — that of the Scandinavian noir. Let the works of Mankell be a jumping off point to authors such as Jo Nesbo, Kjell Eriksson, Hakan Nesser, and more. Each year, the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy awards a prize for best Swedish crime novel. This is a good place to start if you’re looking for additional books in the genre.
Thank you, Henning Mankell, for your contribution to literature and many hours of good reading.