Henning Mankell by Quentin Bates

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Crime fiction has lost one of its giants with the death of Henning Mankell. One of the modern generation of Swedish crime writers, Henning Mankell made no apologies for the criticisms he levelled at society in his books, following squarely in the footsteps of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in asking uncomfortable questions and pointing the finger at issues that deserved to be in the spotlight.

In English, he was one of the pioneers as Wallander in book form and later in the TV versions set the Nordic crime in translation ball rolling, leading the way for the wave of Nordic crime in translation that still doesn’t seen to be slowing down.

Some of us owe Henning Mankell a huge debt for being so central to starting the Nordic crime fiction wave.

But as well as being an accomplished writer, there was plenty more about the man that was worthy of respect, so here we’ll revisit an essay about Henning Mankell that appeared here on the Reality Check in 2013.


Mankell and his millions

What would you do with a couple of million or so euros (or dollars, or pounds)? Personally I’d start with a holiday, probably more than a week, and use the time to think it over. Then I’d probably pay someone to paint the roof of the shed, because it needs doing, I don’t have a head for heights and really don’t want to go up there. But as a million of anything is unlikely to be coming my way any time soon, I reckon the job will be mine one of these days. But I’m off on a tangent already.

Most people who have a decent stack of money appear to be interested primarily in acquiring more of it, or, like Donald Trump, in turning as much of the world as possible into golf courses. Here I could make a cheap crack about maybe employing a decent barber who knows what to do with a dodgy combover, but I’ll resist the temptation to say too much about his ideas of coiffure and coastal land management. Apologies, another digression.

Instead it’s another crime writer I was going to mention here, one considerably more exalted than me; Henning Mankell, the lugubrious, private and intense Swedish creator of Wallander – and a man who puts his money where his mouth is. I’ve read a good few of his books and enjoyed them. Kurt Wallander, his cohort of colleagues and his scarred family are quite a creation. They are much in the questioning spirit of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the previous generation’s trailblazing Swedish crimewriters who paved the way.

Kurt Wallander will always look like Krister Henriksson for me. The Swedish TV versions of the Wallander books were great, but I saw the Henriksson versions before seeing Rolf Lassgård in a more rawboned version of the same role, and even though purists feel he was closer to Wallander, the more measured Krister Henriksson it is. Let’s not even think about the Branagh version of Wallander.

The books explore Swedish society and angst, both Wallander’s own (plenty of that) and that of Sweden in general, all with the subtext of asking what went askew in Swedish society. Henning Mankell is clearly a serious man. You don’t see him grinning all over his face during the rare interviews that he’s said to be prone to walk out of. His fiction is bleak, especially the stuff that’s not about Kurt Wallander, although that’s grim enough. As a young man he was thoroughly politically active, protesting against the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa and the colonial war in Mozambique, as well as being involved in Maoist politics. More recently, he was involved in an attempt in 2010 to break the Gaza blockade when he was on board a flotilla that was intercepted by the Israeli Navy. There were alarming reports of the exchange and even fears for his life at one point. Ten people were killed in the exchange.

As well as producing the Wallander series, Henning Mankell is an extraordinary prolific writer; plays, stories, books and screenplays have all been rolled out. He’s not a poor man by any means. I have something of a soft spot for Wallander and respect Henning Mankell’s work as a writer, not least his part in making Nordic crime fiction mainstream. But it’s what he does with his money that I can’t help but admire. Mankell spends around half of his year in Mozambique, one of those war-torn African nations left to be fought over as the colonial era limped to an undignified, painful end.

Henning Mankell may have spent a few quid on luxuries and if he has, who’s to blame him? But he has also provided a stonking 15 million Swedish crowns (€1.7 million, more than US$2 million) for an orphanage in Mozambique. That’s a €1.7 million that any businessman would have used to buy stocks or property with the prospect of a suitable return on investment, or even a yacht or a fancy car or three.

The Swedish millions fund a village of a hundred and fifty orphaned children as well as their carers near the town of Chimoio. It’s run by SOS Children’s Villages International, an organisation that doesn’t make a great deal of noise but which has been busy in Mozambique since the 1980s, and which is reported to be scrupulous about ensuring that all the money goes where it should.

I take off my hat to the man. The world could do with a few more millionaires cast in the Mankell mould.

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