MysteryPeople Remembers Henning Mankell

-Post by Molly

Henning Mankell, Swedish novelist and activist known internationally for his police procedurals featuring detective Kurt Wallander, passed away earlier this month, on October 5th. I’ve been fan of his work for some years, ever since my sister brought some British editions of his novels home from a study abroad trip to Germany. I was lured by the deceptive simplicity of his language and the murky waters of the morality he portrays. Hearing of his death, I felt moved to write of what his work has meant to me, and bit of what it meant to the rest of the world.

His death from cancer, over many years, shifted the focus of his prose from crime to the experience of illness, and a brief glance at his oeuvre shows his writing interests ran the gamut. Most readers, however, knew his work first through his Wallander series, now part of the canon of Scandinavian crime fiction. The series has been widely translated and filmed in Swedish and British adaptations.

Mankell’s lineage, as a writer, traces to Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwal, the Swedish originators of the Scandinavian police procedural form, and internationally renowned in their own right. Like Wahloo and Sjowall’s series detective Martin Beck, Wallander’s cases usually are set up to examine a wider social issue. Topics explored in Mankell’s novels include, but are not limited to, human trafficking (Sidetracked), juvenile crime, post-Soviet tensions (The Dogs of Riga), apartheid (The White Lioness), xenophobia (Faceless Killers), and virtually every ethical dilemma to reach the Swedish conscience for decades. Despite his deliberate use of the genre to explore contemporary issues, Mankell always made sure to reflect each case back on Wallander’s inner life, keeping the narrative intimate and personal.

Whilst preserving the political framework of his predecessors, Mankell, like his contemporary Jo Nesbø, took the form darker than the early procedurals. Wallander is a complicated protagonist – he struggles equally with the challenges of alcoholism, aging and modernity, yet works hard to protect the vulnerable, whoever they might be. More often than not, Wallander gets to be the decent-man-in-an-indecent-world type of hero. He occasionally rails against the injustice of the laws he enforces, yet given the Swedish setting, the light sentencing received by Mankell’s fictional perpetrators is a bit of a relief compared to an American context.

In his daily life, Mankell worked as an activist as well as a writer, and his novels reflect both his political sensibilities and his sometimes bleak vision of the world around us. The detective novel, generally, swings far left or hard right. With vigilante justice and ass-kicking cops on one hand, and sympathetic petty criminals dealing with an unjust society and vastly disproportionate penalties on the other, the only sub-genre within mystery to truly stand up for the welfare state is the police procedural.

Not just any procedural falls into this sub-genre. Only those which portray the police within the context of the welfare state – not as muscled enforcers, but as diplomatic interlopers between the state and the communities they police – are in this rarefied category. I reference, here, the Scandinavian procedural, although plenty of authors from other countries fit the bill. Mankell helped to establish and keep Scandinavian detective fiction as a marker of quality and conscience, and I hope that future writers across the world will hold to his example.

You can find copies of Mankell’s works on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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