Henning Mankell dies at 67; his Wallander novels led Nordic noir genre


Henning Mankell, the internationally renowned Swedish crime writer whose books about the gloomy, soul-searching police inspector Kurt Wallander enticed readers around the world, died early Monday. He was 67.

The hesitant figurehead of Scandinavian crime fiction, who last year revealed he had cancer, died in the southwestern city of Goteborg, his publisher, Leopard, said in a statement on its website.

His novels and plays sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Following in the footsteps of the popular 1960s Swedish crime-writing duo of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Mankell’s Wallander series helped define the Scandinavian genre that became known as Nordic noir. Set in the bleak landscapes of southern Sweden, the series drew on the dark, morally complex moods of its main protagonist and was heavily infused with social commentary.


Mankell himself was deeply engaged in social and political issues. Since the mid-1980s he had divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he helped build a village for orphaned children to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. He was also among the activists who were attacked and arrested by Israeli forces as they tried to sail to the Gaza strip with humanitarian supplies in June 2010.

“You have to act, not just by writing, but by standing up and doing. For me, you cannot call yourself an intellectual if all you use your intellectual gifts for is to find excuses not to do anything. Which, sadly, is what I think a lot of intellectuals do,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper after the Gaza flotilla raid.

The first Wallander novel, “Faceless Killers,” was published in 1991 and the series was made complete in 2009 with the 10th novel, “The Troubled Man.” The books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. They have been adapted into films and TV series in Sweden and a popular BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh.

Mankell’s international success paved the way for other Scandinavian authors abroad, including “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” author Stieg Larsson and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo. Yet he disliked talking about the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon and said he was mostly influenced by Sherlock Holmes and classical Greek drama.

“It was never my intention to write crime novels as such, but to use the crime as a sort of mirror of a society and of a time. That is my starting point and I know that very many of those who are called crime writers today, they don’t do that,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Associated Press.

Mankell was born in Stockholm in 1948, the son of judge Ivar Mankell and librarian Birgitta, but his mother abandoned the family when he was only a year old. Mankell has said it was a “terrible thing for a child to deal with” and that he couldn’t get over disliking his mother, when he met her again at age 15, for what she had done. She later committed suicide.


Mankell, his father and older sister Helena lived in the courthouse in the town of Sveg in central Sweden, where his father was a judge, and the writer grew up listening to grownups’ discussions on crime and punishment.

As a boy he read books about Africa, the most exotic place he could imagine, and decided to go there one day. He has said he started dreaming of becoming an author from the day his grandmother taught him how to write.

When he was 16 he dropped out of school and started to work as a merchant seaman, loading and unloading ships in the hard-working community he would later call his “real university.” He went on to live in Paris for a year and a half before returning to Sweden, where he started working as a stagehand at a Stockholm theater.

Mankell released his first novel in 1973. “The Stone Blaster” was set in the midst of a workers union movement. With the money he got from the book he bought a ticket to Guinea-Bissau in Africa and set off on a journey to realize his childhood dream. The trip would mark the start of his lifelong relationship with the continent.

“I don’t know why but when I got off the plane in Africa, I had a curious feeling of coming home,” he later wrote. After that he spent a big part of his life in Africa, living in countries including Zambia and Mozambique, and in 1986 he started to work as artistic leader at Teatro Avenida in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.

Back in Sweden in the 1990s, Mankell worked as head of a small theater in the town of Vaxsjo. In addition to the Wallander series he also wrote a number of children’s books and independent novels, including the 1990 “The Eye of the Leopard” and “The Man from Beijing.”


Mankell married and divorced three times before his final lasting marriage in 1998 with Eva Bergman, the daughter of film legend Ingmar Bergman. Together the couple worked on various charities in Africa. The author was particularly involved in a project in Uganda of so-called “memory books,” in which parents dying of AIDS were encouraged to record their life stories for the children they leave behind.

“My driving force is, I guess, the same as all artists and authors,” Mankell told The AP. “To try to understand the time and the world one lives in. Like most other people, I want to know why I have lived by the time I die.”

He is survived by Bergman and his son Jon Mankell, his publisher said.

Rising writes for the Associated Press