News yesterday that Henning Mankell had died aged 67 brought an unsurprisingly swift outpouring of tributes across media new and old (of which probably the best is Barry Forshaw’s in The Independent). Best known as the creator of the detective Kurt Wallander — played by Rolf Lassgård and Kenneth Branagh respectively in the Swedish and British TV adaptations — he was in the vanguard of the Nordic Noir movement that has swept the world in recent years.
I first became aware of his work in about 2001 when Harvill Press, then an independent publisher, started rereleasing the translations by Steven T Murray (who also brought us Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series). At the time I was working in the Edinburgh branch of Ottakar’s and the bookseller looking after the crime section, Juliet Swann, started enthusing about and recommending the work of Mankell — back then just two or three backlist paperbacks from a writer with virtually no UK sales history. This was in the days before central buying, where booksellers and managers in branches had freedom to order what they wanted from publishers’ reps. Crime sold big down in Cameron Toll and they started to sell well, not in massive numbers but it was an anomaly significant enough to make head office take notice and first recommend all 120 or so other branches stock them, and then eventually include his books in marketing promotions.
I might be overestimating her part in Mankell’s overall UK success, but I think at least a bit of retrospective credit is due Juliet (who now works with Citizens Advice Scotland) for helping kick-start his popularity, and so I asked her about why the books grabbed her in the first place. Over to you, Juliet.
“For Henning Mankell the motivation for writing the Wallander novels wasn’t gore, or psychology or the mind of the criminal, it was to examine social issues and confront challenging realities of life in modern-day Sweden. From immigration and racism to corruption and inadequate mental health provision, each of the novels sought to highlight an area of concern. It was this use of crime fiction as a tool to criticise convention and humanity that drove Mankell.
“I first read his work as a bookseller, put in charge of crime fiction. Having read very little of the genre I dipped my toe into this new arena by picking a book published by my favourite publisher, Harvill Press.
“That book was his first Wallander mystery, Faceless Killers. And I was hooked. As a politics geek, the analysis of social policy alongside the murder mystery was ideal fodder. And as a Scot, the dark, cold landscape of Sweden and the dreich moods of our hero, Kurt Wallander, were both appealing.
“Then Harvill was subsumed into Random House. The Mankell novels were re-published in new jackets and, as a bookseller with a high-turnover crime section, I saw an opportunity.
“So our small Edinburgh bookstore offered a multibuy on Mankell paperbacks. My instincts were right and my Ian-Rankin’s-Rebus-loving customers transitioned seamlessly to Wallander. Even when the rest of the chain started stocking Mankell, our store remained the one with the most sales of the early novels. By some margin.
“I was lucky enough to meet Henning Mankell: once at a Harvill press roadshow, and once as part of a last-minute Edinburgh book festival event, chaired by Ian Rankin. As well as revealing his motivations for writing, he confessed to being bored by Wallander and announced there would be no more mysteries for Kurt to solve.
“His other work since then, both in writing and in his support for theatre in Africa was more than enough to keep him busy and to seal his reputation as an intellectual humanitarian with a passion for addressing inequality.
“The world is less interesting for his passing. We are lucky to have his written legacy.”
I also note that Ian Rankin and Arne Dahl gave a short tribute on Radio 5 Live last night, which is worth a listen.