Spotlight: Henning Mankell
Swedish crime writer, playwright, and activist Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm in 1948, the same year as his fictional detective Kurt Wallander. But outside of a shared love of opera and a rigorous work ethic, similarities between the two end there. The son of a lawyer, Mankell was abandoned by his mother as a baby and raised by his father in the small, remote town of Sveg, living in an apartment above the courthouse with his father and sisters. A voracious reader throughout his childhood, he dropped out of school as a teenager to go first to Paris and then to sea, working as a stevedore aboard a freighter. Upon his return, he embraced the leftwing politics of the late '60s, protesting and joining uprisings in Paris and later, Stockholm, against the university system and the Vietnam War. A relationship with a Norwegian woman took him to Norway for much of the 1970s, where he participated on the fringes of the Maoist Communist group to which she belonged. After publishing a novel about the Swedish labor movement, in 1978, he made his first visit to Africa, the country that would become his second home, and where he would divide his time for the remainder of his life.
Life in Africa brought suffering and inequality among the African people into sharp relief, from landmines to AIDS, and Mankell responded with humanitarian work that included the founding and running of a theatre company in his adopted country of Mozambique, and an oral history project recording the stories and voices of parents with AIDS. Mankell's activism and crusade for social justice continued for the rest of his life, infusing his books, his plays, his criticism, and his actions, as he advocated for the powerless in Africa, Sweden and, controversially, Israel.
But despite his far-flung activism, it was inequity in Sweden that first brought Kurt Wallander to life. Returning from an extended stay in Mozambique, Mankell found his once-homogenous homeland dramatically changed, and perceived widespread racism toward Sweden's immigrants. In his 1991 Wallander mystery, Faceless Killers, a single word uttered by a victim, "foreigners," leads to xenophobic mob attacks of immigrants. From then on, Mankell's Wallander mysteries would evoke a Sweden beset by xenophobia, the perils of globalization, and deep corruption in a justice system that no longer functions.
Mankell died in October, 2015, of cancer. Reflecting on the author, Wallander star Kenneth Branagh tells MASTERPIECE, "He was a political fellow, he was an active man, he was a great lover of theater, a lover of Africa, a lover of Swedish politics, a lover of the sea—and he was a fascinating man to be around. He was a passionate, articulate, creative artist, really a vibrant, vital, electrical spark when you were in his company. This is a man who seized every piece of life that was given to him."
Perhaps a childhood living above a courthouse impacted the man who would fuse crime writing with societal critique. In a 2009 interview, Mankell told MASTERPIECE, "As a child I learned a sincere and profound respect for the system of justice. It is a serious matter when people are doing things wrong; there must be a reaction to that. On the other hand, until proven guilty, someone should be looked upon as innocent. Then when I became a little older, I saw the connection between the system of justice and democracy. If one doesn't work, neither can the other. It's as simple as that. I have put this idea between the lines in all the novels that I've written about Wallander."
Beyond Mankell's first Wallander book, Faceless Killers, investigate the episodes in which Henning Mankell melded taut, gritty thrillers with social conscience as he critiqued the world around him through his everyman detective who tried, in spite of it all, to do good.
The Man Who Smiled
Wallander discovers that a foundation created to help people in Africa is a front for trafficking body parts harvested from those very people it's supposed to aid. Here, Mankell highlights anxiety about the potential for corruption and exploitation behind prosperity.
Wallander is faced with a cyber-terrorist sect determined to bring global financial markets to ruin in this thriller that crystalizes unease around globalism, international financial domination, right-wing religious extremists, and corruption.
An Event in Autumn
When the remains of a pregnant young woman wash ashore, Wallander's brief interlude of happy domesticity is shattered. Mankell explores the horrors of human trafficking in an era of porous borders and violence against women.
The Dogs of Riga
Wallander must look within and go abroad when a life raft floats into Ystad harbor, the corpses of two tortured Latvian men grimly nestled within. In this picture of the collapsed former Soviet republic of Lavia, where democracy is in its constricted infancy, Mankell examines the relationships between freedom, democracy and justice.
The White Lioness
In South Africa, Wallander's investigation into the disappearance of a Swedish woman uncovers an assassination plot that could turn simmering tension into a conflagration. In Mankell's beloved Africa, The White Lioness reflects the complexity of redressing inequality in a post-apartheid society.