Mankell famed for suspense noir novels

New York • Henning Mankell, the Swedish novelist and playwright best known for police procedurals that were translated into many languages and sold throughout the world, died on Monday in Goteborg, Sweden. He was 67.

The cause was cancer, said his literary agent Anneli Hoier. Last year, Mankell said doctors had found tumours in his neck and left lung.

He was considered the dean of the Scandinavian noir writers famed for novels that blended edge- of-your-seat suspense with flawed, compelling protagonists and strong social themes. Others include Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland, Jo Nesbo of Norway and Stieg Larsson of Sweden.

Mankell led the way with 10 mystery novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander, a gruff but humane detective troubled by self-doubt, overeating, alcoholism and eventually dementia. Most of the action takes place in and around Ystad, a real-life town of 18,350 inhabitants on the Baltic Sea.

Mankell divided his time between Stockholm and Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where he was artistic director of Teatro Avenida, a local theatre.

"I came to Africa with one purpose: I wanted to see the world outside the perspective of European egocentricity," he wrote in an essay for The New York Times in 2011. "I could have chosen Asia or South America. I ended up in Africa because the plane ticket there was cheapest."

Though Africa was rarely the main setting for his detective novels, it informed his sensitivity to the mistreatment of non-European immigrants in enlightened Sweden.

In Firewall (1998), he adeptly intertwined financial cybercrime with colonialism. It begins with the discovery of the body of what appears to be a heart attack victim lying in front of an ATM in Ystad and the seemingly unconnected murder of a cabdriver by a teenage girl on the outskirts of town.

The novel ends with the villain - a white doctor in Africa driven by anti-colonialist rage - flying to Sweden in a frantic attempt to ignite a meltdown of the global financial system. Wallander saves the day, but only after stumbling into the conspiracy through his hapless affair with a woman who is the villain's accomplice.

Mankell grew irritated over attempts by readers to trace elements from his life in Wallander's. Still, the parallels were there.

Born in Stockholm on Feb 3, 1948, he was abandoned by his mother, along with his two siblings, and they moved in with their father, a judge, in Sveg, a small community in northern Sweden.

Through his father's court activities, Mankell learnt about criminal cases in a small-town setting not unlike Wallander's investigations in Ystad. Like the author's mother, Wallander is an errant parent who abandons a child - though the two reconcile in the course of the detective series.

Wallander's repeated failures at lasting romances echoed the author's. Mankell was married four times, the last time to Eva Bergman, daughter of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. "It shows I am an optimist," Mankell said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian.

He embarked early on a literary career. Hoping to emulate Joseph Conrad, he went to sea in the Swedish merchant marine at 16. But he quit when, after numerous voyages, he had travelled no farther than the British industrial port of Middlesbrough. At 19, a play he had written was produced in Stockholm. A year later, he was named an assistant theatre director and travelled the country with touring productions.

It was not until 1991, when he was 43, that the first of his Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, was published. The novel won the Glass Key award, given annually to a crime novel written by a Scandinavian. Mankell's popularity grew with each Wallander mystery.

Almost all of the Wallander mysteries were adapted for television. British actor Kenneth Branagh played Wallander in several BBC broadcasts. Perhaps the most successful Wallander screen portrayals were for Swedish TV and starred Swedish actor Krister Henriksson, whom the author often said came closest to his own image of the detective.

Mankell is survived by his fourth wife and a son.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Mankell famed for suspense noir novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe