Henning Mankell on Kenneth Branagh's Wallander
Played by Kenneth Branagh and Coming to Your TV Screen. The Detective's Literary Creator on How the Phenomenon Began

The Sunday Times, 26 October 2008
By Stephen Armstrong
**Thanks Catherine

In times like these, our culture needs heroes, but they seem to come and go so irresponsibly. Kings figure in the literary bestseller lists only as fantasy figures alongside wizards; the cowboy really is a man alone; and the warrior has given up facing the enemy with his savage battle cry, preferring to sneak around in the special forces. It’s only the detective who prevails. Perhaps because he is the perfect champion for a world whose leaders lie, whose generals carpet-bomb villages and whose athletes soak up chemicals for a fractional advantage. Flawed, imperfect, often lurching from failure to failure, but plugging on to solve a crime regardless, detectives deliver what little salvation we deserve — although their victories merely hold back the slow creep of the inevitable night.

Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective "must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour. He talks as the man of his age talks; that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness". Chandler believed, however, that there were no classics of crime and detection: "Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can never be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet."

Chandler, however, was of the hard-boiled age, which mercifully rid us of the country-house murder in our crime fiction, but kept the constant of the detective, unchanged and unchanging, neither tarnished nor afraid, with no trace of a hero’s vulnerability. These days, that rarely works. Our most beloved sleuths, from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to Colin Dexter’s Endeavour Morse, decay, absorbing countless physical and emotional blows, then nursing their wounds, from book to book, with grim resignation and increasing gloom — and, compared to Kurt Wallander, these men seem like Butlins Redcoats.

Inspector Wallander is Sweden’s most successful literary export, an international brand, yet it’s hard to see why at first glance. He is astonishingly miserable, fairly ugly and so monumentally unhealthy, he should have his own dedicated obesity czar. He eats too much fried food, drinks heavily and — across eight novels — has been sued for police brutality, been shot and stabbed, lost his wife in a messy divorce, struggled to build a relationship with his daughter and gunned down a man by accident. He is wonderfully pessimistic about the citizens he guards and usually solves crimes through luck and slog, not cunning inspiration. It’s little surprise that he increasingly believes he shouldn’t be a policeman any more.

The Stockholm-born Henning Mankell writes Wallander as so damn Swedish, it makes your heart sing. Strindberg or Bergman could have created this man with ease. Yet he’s a huge global hit, selling about 30m books in 100 countries, translated into 40 languages. Perhaps it’s because his mission is the greatest a literary sleuth can accept: to explore the dark heart of society and, in his case, the collapse of the liberal Swedish dream. When I meet Mankell, who was a successful author before he created his gloomy gumshoe, he explains that Wallander was born in May 1989, out of a need to talk about the creeping xenophobia he was witnessing in his home country. The first book examines the anti-immigration sentiments that boil over when an elderly couple are presumed murdered by "foreigners".

"I had no idea this would be the start of a long journey," Mankell says. "I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden. And, since xenophobia is a crime, I needed a police officer. So the story came first, then the character. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden — and Europe — in the 1990s. The best use of that tool was to say ‘What story shall I tell?’, then put him in it."

Now, however, Kurt Wallander faces twin tests — the publication of a collection of short stories, The Pyramid, which act as a prequel to Mankell’s first Wallander novel, and a BBC dramatisation of the fifth book, Sidetracked, with Kenneth Branagh playing the detective. It’s a challenge on both fronts because, as Mankell explains, the land and people are as important in the Wallander books as the man himself. His thrillers are rooted in the country’s harsh climate, in the shadows lurking behind the bright facade of social-democratic society. The crimes are often obscene, hiding corruption, collusion and conspiracy in the brittle winter of the Swedish countryside. Branagh will have to subsume himself to a landscape shot with the epic sweep of 'No Country for Old Men'. At the same time, Mankell explains that, in writing The Pyramid, he has tried to explain how his hero came to be. This may unsettle his many fans. We start with Wallander as a young beat cop, trying to woo his mercurial girlfriend and solve an elaborate murder that took place next door. As the stories proceed, we see our beloved portly misanthrope develop, but it is a little disconcerting to find the deeply conservative Wallander originally sympathising with antiwar protesters in 1970s Stockholm.

"My ambition from the beginning was to show a man who was always changing, never fixed," Mankell says. "That is one of the secrets to his success. He has a working-class background, and to become a police officer, he had to choose his place in society. At that time, you had to be conservative. But he’s not completely sure about what’s right and wrong. I call this changing process the diabetes syndrome. After the fourth book, I asked a doctor friend of mine, ‘Having read the books, what kind of disease would you give him?’ She said, ‘Diabetes.’ Immediately. So I gave him diabetes and that made him even more popular."

Branagh’s relatively trim Wallander doesn’t appear to be approaching the kind of morbid obesity that can induce the condition. He is, however, suitably taciturn, weary and occasionally despairing. In the first drama of what the executive producer, Andy Harries, hopes could become a new Prime Suspect — "Maybe three every two years," he suggests — Branagh’s Wallander picks at a skein of abuse, teasing out of it self-mutilating schoolboys, a woman escaping sexual slavery who would rather torch herself than accept his help, and a circle of the great and good protected by a sinister former cop. It’s not typical Branagh material — "There’s something very strange, I think, at the heart of Wallander," he has said — but he somehow pulls it off.

It helps that cast and crew have clearly read the books.

In addition, as Harries explains, a new piece of camera technology became available to them that delivers the depth and sweep of 35mm film in a handheld digital device. Sweden thus appears, by turn, dreamy, hostile, raw and claustrophobic, despite the small screen.

The weakest part of both the show and the new book is the difficult relationship between Wallander and his father, a painter with dementia who hates his son’s job and who paints the same landscape every time he sits at an easel. The conclusion to Sidetracked has a moment of warmth between the two that you would struggle to find in the novels so far translated into English. The Pyramid, meanwhile, explores this tension as it began, touching on reasons why the young Kurt would join the force against his father’s wishes. Mankell is unrepentant. "In a good book, I want loose ends," he shrugs. "I learnt that from Pinter. So I don’t say why he chose his vocation. But I think maybe he wanted to live a life that wasn’t his father’s. His father paints the same painting all the time, saying, ‘Please, let us have a world that doesn’t change.’ Wallander wants to engage with life and change it."

In this battle over change that infuses Wallander, Mankell has come close to writing the classic Chandler denied any detective writer at the time had achieved. There’s another, more sinister, conflict there as well. "People see how essential the relationship between democracy and the system of justice is," he argues. "We know that if the system of justice doesn’t work, democracy is doomed. Wallander is worried about that, and so are many people in democracies. Maybe that’s why he is so popular. I am a very radical person — as radical as when I was younger. So my books all have in common my search for understanding of the terrible world we are living in and ways to change it."

As he picks up his coat to leave, I ask: can your art, can any art, really bring about social change? He stops, smiles and shakes his head. "No," he says softly. "But you cannot have social change without art."

The Pyramid by Henning Mankell is published by Vintage on Thursday; 'Wallander' starts on BBC1 in November

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