Henning Mankell

Weekly Lizard

Henning Mankell may be less famous than his creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, who led Scandinavian crime fiction to international bestseller-dom long before a certain tattooed hacker appeared on the scene. But with his books published in thirty-three countries, translated into forty-five languages, and made into more than a dozen films (not to mention his work in theater and his humanitarian projects all over the world), Henning Mankell’s reputation and legacy may yet outlive his famous detective.

Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 3, 1948. When he was two years old, the family relocated to the small town of Sveg, where Henning’s father, Ivar Mankell, took a position as a judge. Mrs. Mankell left the family shortly thereafter, and Ivar raised the two children—Henning and his sister—by himself. The family lived in a flat above the courts and their father’s offices, making Mankell’s future interest in justice and the law all but inevitable. As a child he was an eager reader with a big imagination who particularly enjoyed reading tales of explorers in Africa, so much so that he would pretend the logs floating down the Ljusnan River were crocodiles swimming in the Congo.

In 1961, the Mankells moved to the coastal city of Boras. Dissatisfied with his high school experience there, Mankell dropped out and left home at the age of sixteen, first heading to Paris and then signing up to be a merchant seaman aboard a Swedish ship transporting iron ore. He spent two years at sea before returning to Paris, where he witnessed a growing unrest among the students and workers of the city—unrest that erupted into strikes and protests that rocked the city in 1968. Upon returning to Sweden, Mankell settled in Stockholm and began working as a theater stagehand. He soon wrote his first play, Amusement Park, a satire of Swedish colonial interests in 19th-century South America that featured what would become his trademark blend of story and political commentary.

Mankell continued his work in the theater, writing and directing plays, and published his first novel, The Stone Blaster, a social commentary about the workers’ union movement. After years of traveling all over the world, he finally had his first chance to travel to Africa in 1973. Mankell credits the trip for providing him a different, wider perspective on life, saying, “I am like an artist who must stand close to the canvas to paint, but then take a step back to see what I have painted. Africa has provided my life with that movement. Some things you can only see at a distance.” After brief stays in Zambia and other countries, Mankell settled in Mozambique in 1986 to run the socially-minded theater company, Teatro Avenida in Maputo. He now spends half the year there along with his wife, choreographer and theater director Eve Bergman, the daughter of acclaimed director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman.

Kurt Wallander, the brilliant yet melancholic Swedish detective, came to be on May 20, 1989, when Mankell discovered the name in a phonebook. Faceless Killers, the first in what would become a ten-book series, was released in 1991 to much acclaim, winning the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Best Novel award and the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel (later winners include Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø). Notable for their focus on social issues—including welfare, the abuse of women and children, and political corruption—the Wallander books have now been published in thirty-three countries and have been adapted into both a Swedish film series starring Krister Henriksson and a BBC/PBS Mystery! series starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell concluded the series with 2011’s The Troubled Man, which finds the inspector suffering the effects of age.

In addition to the Wallander books, the prolific Mankell has written more than 40 plays and twenty-nine other books, from picture books, to a semiautobiographical middle grade series (the Swedish protagonist, Joel Gustafson, leaves home to become a sailor), to several non-series novels for adults. Mankell continues to use his works to foment social awareness and political discussion. The 2004 nonfiction title I Die, but the Memory Lives On was written in collaboration with the Memory Book Project, an organization that gives those dying of AIDS an opportunity to record their lives for friends and loved ones. Daniel, first published in English in 2010, is a historical novel that addresses the complex issues of colonialism and immigrant assimilation through the story of a young African boy brought to Sweden.

Though the Wallander series has come to a close, Henning Mankell’s career shows no signs of slowing down. Post-Wallander he intends to devote more time to Teatro Avenida and raising awareness of humanitarian and social issues. And, of course, he won’t stop writing. “I’m a storyteller,” he explains. “The day that my creativity goes is the day that I go too.”