The Mirror of Crime:
Bob Cornwell talks to European best-seller

Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell is a most unusual crime writer. Of course it helps that he is Swedish, for most Swedish crime writers languish in their native tongue. But most crime writers start with a set of characters – a plot idea and perhaps a place. Mankell starts with an issue.
But Mankell’s irresistible police novels are not political tracts. His hero, Inspector Kurt Wallander, whilst an excellent policeman, is an ordinary man who is troubled by many aspects of the society in which he operates.“If I’m to keep on being a policeman,” he remarks in Sidetracked, one of the three Wallander books so far published in the UK, “I have to understand why.” This approach, together with the fact that the issues that confront Sweden (racism, the abuse of children for example) are also issues that trouble ordinary people everywhere, accounts I believe, for Mankell’s extraordinary success across Europe and elsewhere.
As well as being a novelist, Mankell also pursues a separate career as a playwright and theatre director (his father-in-law is Ingmar Bergman, the legendary Swedish film and theatre director) and spends at least half of his time, along with his wife, running the Teatro Avenida in Mozambique. He has four children.
In Sweden, the nine-book Wallander series is complete, a problem for a successful author (he explains his solution – an imaginative one – during the interview). Of the three books so far published here, the first of the series, Faceless Killers, published in Sweden in 1991, was picked up by Harvill last year. But for reasons known only to Harvill, the second book to be published here was Sidetracked, the fifth in the series. The latest is The Fifth Woman (published in Sweden in 1996) the sixth in the series. In October Harvill will publish The Dogs of Riga, the second book.
We meet in the Meridien Hotel, Piccadilly. The greying 53 year-old Mankell speaks slowly, with the precision (and the occasional inaccuracies) of someone who doesn’t speak English every day. However, he knows parts of England very well, particularly Middlesbrough, to which he sailed regularly as a young merchant seaman.

Is it a problem for you to talk about books you wrote up to ten years ago?
No, it’s not. Faceless Killers was written about ten years ago. I find it astonishingly interesting to talk about, because I’m not the same person. It means that I can see now that I am a little different from the way that I felt and thought when I wrote the earlier books. On the other hand I can also see that I feel and think the same.

Have we lost anything by not getting the series in the proper order? Yes and no. I believe that all the novels in the series could be read independently. But on the other hand the books were written in a chronological order. But no I wouldn’t say that they have lost anything. But there is obviously a little confusion. I think that it was in Germany the father of Wallander died in the wrong order, so to speak (laughter).

Am I right in thinking that your life, until the Wallander books that is, has been primarily concerned with the theatre?
No, I wouldn’t say that. My first novel was published when I was 21 years old. I have always had readers, always. I found out from my publisher that none of my novels has been in the red. Every one has been successful in that sense, but what happened with the Wallander stories was that I got many more readers. But I think that already from the beginning, I divided my time into work in the theatre, as a playwright, as a director – and writing. And that is what I do even today. Just one week ago I finished a play for a theatre in Stockholm. But I do not direct any more in Sweden, because I don’t have time. So I only direct in theatre in Africa.

Was your family background literary or theatrical?
Well actually, my family were musicians. We came from France and Germany, many years ago as musicians, as violin players, organ players in churches. So the family has been more into music. But my father was a reading person and he always encouraged me, my brother and sister to read . He never asked what we read.

So how did this dual career of yours come about?
I decided very early. I can’t remember having any other dream in my life as a child than being an author. That was what I wanted. But when I was 17 or 18 years old, I found out that the work of a director probably is very similar to the work of an author. That is, that you create works. And I thought, this is wonderful. When you write you are completely alone; when you work in the theatre you are surrounded by people the whole time. So that made me interested in the work of a director. And I was quite successful immediately. It made it possible for me to let the theatre pay for my work as an author. If I directed one play, it would give me five months [of complete isolation] to write. That, in the beginning, was important.

When did you discover a facility for writing?
I was six years old and it was my grandmother who taught me. I can still remember the miracle that I could put word after word, make a sentence, then more sentences, making a story. I still remember the sensation of that. I suppose it was that at that moment I became an author.

Did you write stories as a child?
Yes. The first thing I wrote, because when you are a child you imitate, was a one page summary of Robinson Crusoe. I’m so sad I don’t have it anymore. I remember the sensation of writing, I had it from the beginning, so I never actually thought of anything else. OK, when I left school, I was a sailor. But that was part of my university of life - to go where I wanted.

I believe you were first published as a writer of children’s books...
No. The first three or four novels were more outspoken political novels. It was only when I was forty or something that I first wrote a story for young people. In one way I do not like to talk about children’s books, because I strongly believe that a good story can be read by anyone.

Have you read much crime fiction?
I would say yes and no. I have steadily read a writer like John Le Carré, if you can call him a crime writer, always from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. I haven’t read, well I have read, but not in that passionate way, the classical authors like Agatha Christie. What interests me is that I try to work in that old tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks, to use the mirror of crime to look at a whole society. I still do not hesitate to say that the best crime story ever written is Macbeth by Shakespeare. No-one seems to think that it is a crime story, but that is precisely what it is. And another crime story is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. So what I try to do is work in that very old tradition. I would never ever think of writing a crime story for the sake of itself. I really wanted to talk about certain things in society.

But you are following in a crime story tradition also, that of the police novel; in Sweden, in the tradition of writers like K. Arne Blom and in particular that of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Did they influence you in any way?
When Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote their ten novels in the 60’s, I was still very young. But I read them and I thought they were good. And I thought they worked in that tradition that I had already started to think about. So naturally they sort of influenced me. I also think that at least some of Ed McBain’s novels worked very well. Those I liked. So naturally you are influenced by a lot of traditions, whether you want to or not. But I must say that the author who has inspired me most is John Le Carré, because he is interested, as I am, in the mental landscape of things. I mean, what is Wallander doing? He is going around, thinking, page after page after page. And that is what interests me. The thinking.

You mentioned that your early books were politically inspired. Yet your Wallander books are, I think, less overtly political than those of Sjöwall/Walhöö. Why is that?
I think you must divide those ten novels into two halves. The first five were much better than the last five. In the last five when Wahlöö was already very ill, they started to do what I don’t intend to do. They used satire and they made the political message too obvious. I don’t intend to do that. I think it is better to have it as a sub-text.

When you started to think about the Wallander novels had you any experience of police work? Or did you have to research it?
Well, I grew up in a family where some people were involved in the system of justice: a prosecutor, a judge. I have always had a feeling, since I was a child, that the system of justice is very important. I didn’t have any experience of police work so I did have to do some research, in the beginning. The police force in Sweden liked my first book very much. It has been no problem to get all the help I want. I can go wherever I want, and see whoever I want.

Sjöwall/Wahlöö planned a finite series of ten books. You seem to have a similar target in mind...
They are already written, all of them. There are nine.

And Wallander will not be resurrected..?

First let me tell you why did I stop. I did it, not because I was bored, on the contrary, I did it out of respect for the reader and for myself. I wouldn’t stand for the situation where a reader pays a lot of money to buy a novel, and after fifteen pages feel that the author is bored. So when I wrote the ninth novel, I still enjoyed it very much. And then I stopped.
But what will happen now is that next year I will start to write not nine but three novels, with the daughter of Wallander who becomes a police-woman, in the foreground, with Wallander in the background.

Did you always know there were going to be nine Wallander books?
I think I thought in the beginning, four. When I had written the second, I decided to write eight, and when I was in the seventh I realised there could be a last one.

How did you come to write Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book?
I think this question is the most important question that anyone can ask. Because that explains everything. In 1989 I had been a very long time in Africa. I had been one and a half years without visiting Sweden. When I came back I realised immediately that a ticking bomb in Swedish society was the increase in racism. So I decided to write about that. And because to me the actions of racism are criminal actions, I decided: OK I’ll use the crime story. And at that time I realised that I needed a police officer..
And so, this is quite funny, today is the 21st of May. I looked it up in an old diary, and it was on the 20th of May 1989 that Wallander was born. I took the name out of the telephone book. A good name, I thought. But to me it is important that he was born out of a need. It was never: I have a man here, what story will I give him?

Is it coincidental that Faceless Killers was published in 1991, five years after the assassination of Olaf Palme and at a time when, for the first time since the mid-70’s, a conservative coalition had been voted into power?
First of all, I think that the murder of Olaf Palme [1986], isn’t as important as people think. It was naturally important at that time. Many times I hear that Swedish society was changed, something happened. That’s not true. I mean the changes were not dependent upon one person. Already at that time we had some feeling that the society that the old Social Democrats tried to build up was crumbling. The problem is that [the changes] have created in Sweden a society that wasn’t necessary. We could have solved a lot of those problems without throwing the baby out with the bath water. And that has created a lot of problems in Sweden. Now to me, the fundamental thing that is the sub-text of all these novels is the discussion of the relationship between democracy and the system of justice. What worries Wallander is that if people start to doubt whether the system of justice is really clean or credible then that is a threat to democracy. Because you cannot have a democracy if you don't have a system of justice that works well, that’s obvious. That is what I am talking about indirectly in all these novels. And I can see that, from the letters I get from readers, that they discuss these things too.

Does your living in Mozambique affect your view of Sweden?
I always thought that living in Africa makes me a better European. Distance is always good. I think half of the Wallander stories have been written in Africa.

Why did you set the novels in a relatively rural setting, rather than say, Stockholm?
I was very conscious about what I was doing. At that time, at the end of the 80’s, up till then in Sweden, I suppose like in many countries, you could still talk about some kinds of crime that only happened in big cities.You can go to a small city now and buy any kind of drug that you find in the big cities. At that time that wasn’t possible. That is one reason that I chose a little place. The second is the fact that I was living there. I have a farm down there.

From the start Wallander is a very human character. He is divorced, he has problems with his daughter and his father. Had you a clear idea about how he might be developed?
I decided from the beginning that what I wanted to do was to create a character that was always changing. I wanted a character like you and me. We are, for sure, not the same person tomorrow as today. And I really worked a lot with that. In the first novel he has an opinion, he starts to doubt it in the second, he changes it in the third. In the fourth novel I spoke with a friend of mine, a doctor, and I said: OK, if you look at this guy, he is 44 years old, he is living his life, what kind of disease would you give him? (Laughter). After a while he said: Diabetes! To me it was very important; that he is changing makes him credible. That is another reason why he has become so popular.

The books put great emphasis on teamwork. Was that important to you?
I think it is because that is a fact. Successful police forces are always team forces.

One thing I do miss: that kind of black humour that policemen develop, that often enables them to keep that alien to Swedes?
If I go back now, I suppose that if I had written some of these novels today, I would probably have added a little more humour. At that time I was a bit afraid of coming too close to satire. If you use black humour, people can start to think that now he is into the satire. And I was maybe a bit afraid of that.

A remarkable feature of the books we’ve seen so far is the realism and plotting of the investigation. How important is that to you?
Very important.

Do you work out your plot well in advance?
Oh yes. When I start to write I know everything. It happens sometimes that I write the end first, just to provoke myself a little. I don’t believe it when authors say that they start writing and see what happens.That’s bullshit. It’s not true. You have to know the story. Then it happens, on the way, that you find a new idea. But that you can control. If you know everything, you can immediately see whether it is a good idea or not. And I try, this is just for myself, to think before I start, how many pages [shall I write]? And I usually manage to say to myself: this is going to be 400 pages. And it is very rare that I miss by more than five pages.

Writers in the UK are often pressured by their publishers to produce long books. Is that something you have experienced?
Nothing like that. I try to not bulk it out too much, but on the other hand I am afraid of books that are too short. I tell the story the way I tell it.

Serial killers, which feature in both Sidetracked and The Fifth Woman, have been a factor in the success of certain books and films, but with little basis in reality. What is the reality in Sweden?
What has happened is that we know that during the last forty years there has been an increase in serial killings in the Western world. Scientists in the United States still struggle with why. We have had some cases in Sweden and we still don’t know why it is happening.

In Sidetracked it is quite easy early on in the book to deduce both the killer and the underlying motive. Was this intentional? Oh yes. The challenge to me – I’ve never succeeded yet, completely, to do it – but I would like one time to write on the first page what has happened, why it has happened, then write 500 pages after that, and people would still like reading it. For me it is the process of the investigation that is more important than whodunit. That you can sort out in the beginning. I think that it is interesting when the reader knows more than a lot of the characters, and can see how they came to that conclusion. So that was what I decided.

In the similarly structured The Fifth Woman, neither the perpetrator or the motive is quite so easily deduced...
I like to create a variety in the way I tell the stories.

An underlying theme in both books seems to me to be what Wallander regards as the increasing spiritual poverty in Sweden – and the consequences for the young...
I think the general answer has to be that whatever I write, it has to start with a question. There must be something I would like to write about. I know that the question when I started to write Sidetracked was this very simple question, "What are we doing with our children?" In The Fifth Woman the question was, "What happens when people are not relying on the system of justice anymore", so they start to take things in their own hands, especially women.
I have such simple starting points for everything that I write. I cannot write anything good if I don’t have a question. And if I know everything from the beginning then I wouldn’t write about it.

If I have a criticism, it is that the social context of The Fifth Woman, in which vigilante action groups start to appear across the country, is not really explained. Is this because the books have not appeared in the proper order?
Yes. That is a problem. I agree to that. Not only is [the ground] prepared [in previous books], but it comes back later too.

In this book Wallander specifically ties the changes in Swedish society to the point where people throw out their old socks rather than darn them, in other words, to rising prosperity...
What I tried to talk about in The Fifth Woman was that we have created a society where we throw away people in the same way as we throw away old socks. The ultimate point about a consumer society is the way that you are also consuming people. I think this is a terrible problem that we are facing in our part of the world. This theme runs as a parallel line throughout the book, and Wallander returns to the ‘darning socks’ idea later in other novels too.

Economically speaking at least, Sweden would seem to be a good place to live. Yet you seem very pessimistic. Why?
Yes and no. I wouldn’t use the word pessimistic. I am worried. I am very very worried about the way in which society works, where we are going. Because it wasn’t necessarily so. And I also believe that it is not too late to reverse the changes. I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist. I am worried, and the letters I get from readers say that they have the same worries. I have found out that Wallander is a kind of spokesman really for the worries of a lot of people.

Do you think that accounts for the big international success of your books?
I have really seen that most obviously when I speak to people in societies as different as those of Finland, Germany and Italy. They come back to the same points. And I believe that that fact, plus the fact that Wallander is a person who always changing, is at least two of the reasons why he has become popular. I cannot understand why he is so popular in Korea (laughter). That I will try to find out.
The serial killer in each book is rather untypical. Why?
Eventually it was a way to give a very very shocking answer to the question: what do we do with our children? Out of some of them we create monsters. What do we do with the women? Well, we create people who react in brutal ways.

There is a remarkable coda in The Fifth Woman: Wallander’s post-arrest interviews with the killer. Yet, uncharacteristically I feel, he fails to respond to her final appeal. Why?
Even though she is dead, she will come back later. I can tell you in the first novel about the daughter of Wallander, he will tell the daughter about that woman, because he has realised so many things and he will say that she was a very brutal person, but maybe the most honest person he ever met. She will come back – because she made an impression on him that he will never forget.
By the way, this you cannot know, but sometimes I put in small things in the way I use the names. The name of the killer is the name of the last person ever executed in Sweden, in 1912.
Also, in every novel I hide a little thing that I know is wrong. And I try to see if someone finds out about it. It happens sometimes.

So, a challenge for your UK readers! It’s not wrong, but the significance of the strange knot used by the Faceless Killers is never explained...
That is very very important. When I speak sometimes with old detectives, they say, "My God, even in the cases we solve, there are always 30 or 40% of things that we never understand. But we forget about it, we’ve solved it." So that is real. It irritates some people. In one of the next novels [to appear in English] there is a discussion about this.

You won the major Swedish crime fiction prize with Faceless Killers. Is this where your international career started?
No, I think the third novel The White Lioness, which takes place mainly in South Africa, was the novel that blew out the gates. It was published in a lot of countries at the same time.

Are you happy with your English translations?
Yes. Those languages where I have some facility, that is English, German, French and Portuguese, then I check it out. I checked the first ten pages of the translation here and I said it is good, because it is. In other countries sometimes it is not good, so it has to be redone. I try to check up a little. Obviously I can’t do anything with the Koreans (laughter). Or the Japanese. I have to hope. But I have a very good agent in Denmark, a woman who is very tough and she tries in various ways to check up.

Is there anything particularly Swedish in the books which might cause problems for translators?
No. Maybe [it is necessary] to realise the importance of the climate and the landscape, which always plays a major part in the novels. Swedes are very much into landscape and climate. I think in the English and German translations they took proper care of that.

Three of your books have been adapted for the screen...
Three have been adapted, but all of them will be done. I can tell you that last Friday, the last scene of The Fifth Woman was shot. So there is still five to go. I picked the actor who plays Wallander [Rolf Lassgärd], he’s a famous actor in Sweden. And in my contract, if for any reason, he is unavailable, I have the right to cancel everything. I won’t accept anyone else.

Have you worked with this actor in the theatre?
Yes, It was quite funny. I spoke with the director of the first film and he said, " Now we have to think who will play this character." I said, "Give me a pen, and some paper," and I wrote the name and I said, "My Wallander is here." He did the same. Then we opened the papers and we had the same name!

You have also written original material for television? Are they crime stories?
No, not necessarily. I write at least one play a year for the theatre. They are never crime stories. I recently finished a play about refugees, living illegally in the country. They are losing their identities...

So, like the Wallander novels, issue-based...
Oh yes.

The second Wallander book, The Dogs of Riga, is next for publication in the UK. Care to give us a trailer?
First of all I would say that I have been thinking about writing about the writing of that novel, because it was very complicated. I went to Latvia, to Riga, and at that time you couldn’t tell what was happening. I was there at the time of the Black Berets [Soviet troops sent to Latvia in early 1991, in belated response to the May 1990 declaration of independence by the Latvian parliament], who were actually shooting people. To find out about how the police force worked, I had to meet secretly with a captain of the police force who refused to meet me officially. I had to meet him at night in a very strange place. And he gave me the material I needed.
The question in that book is, what will happen when the gates open in Eastern Europe? We will have, I think, another kind of criminality. That is obviously the price we will pay for having let down these people for so long. The book is about the consequences of a liberated Eastern Europe.

Henning Mankell, thank you very much.

Bob Cornwell ( Review - The Fifth Woman / Sidetracked )

   Faceless Killers
   The Fifth Woman
   The Dogs of Riga

  More Books by Henning Mankell at