23 March 2011

Wait for it

Henning Mankell: the last Wallander
Forget the 40 plays, the Gaza flotilla arrest and the good work in Africa, what Henning Mankell is really famous for is the anguished detective he created 22 years ago. Now, with the final Wallander novel published this week, he tells Jon Henley why he is happy to say farewell

That's it then; the end. Twenty-two years after his first appearance and more than a decade since the one everybody - even his creator - had assumed would be his last, Inspector Kurt Wallander is working his last case.

The lugubrious, all too human but ultimately decent Swedish cop with the never-ending health problems and the terrible family life has sold 30m books in 45 different languages. This will be a sad day for a lot of people.

But not, on balance, for Henning Mankell. "Hand on heart," he says, "I thought I'd written his last adventure a long time ago. I don't even particularly like the man. We have certain things in common: we enjoy the same kind of music, we have a similarly conscientious approach to work. We wouldn't be enemies if we knew each other, but he wouldn't be a close friend. He's not someone I'd invite to dinner."...

"When you reach your 60s, you realise certain things," he says. "First, that you've lived well over half your life. Second, that you've pretty much made all your really big decisions; people very rarely change direction after that. And that leads you to look back. It's quite a . . . scary moment. So I asked: am I afraid of anything? I'm not afraid of dying. Nor of pain; we can control most pain these days. But there is one thing I'm scared of."

The thing Mankell is scared of is the reason this is Wallander's last case, so obviously I'm not going to tell you what it is. But thinking about that, and about the whole business of looking back on a life, and the idea of Wallander realising how all along he had been so resolutely non-political, then wondering what might happen if you confronted him with perhaps the biggest political scandal in Sweden's postwar history – thinking about all those things, Mankell says, "I began to think I really might have a story for Wallander. One last one."...

Crime writing, he came to realise, was not – as everyone had always told him – a literary genre that was invented by Poe or Hammett or even by Shakespeare. "It was around in classical drama," he says. "Even then, we were holding up a mirror to crime to observe society. Look at Medea: a woman murders her kids because she's jealous of her husband. If that's not a crime story, I don't know what is. And if the ancient Greeks had had a police force, you can be damn sure a detective inspector would have had a part in Medea. Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime."

Wallander took off almost instantly in Scandinavia, and nearly as fast in continental Europe. Britain, after a slower start, is catching up, carried on a wave of Scandi-crime enthusiasm that also features the likes of Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Detective Sarah Lund. Wallander, though, retains a special appeal. What is it?

Partly, Mankell reckons, that he has never instrumentalised the detective. "Everything has always started from a big question, not from within Wallander," he says. "I did sometimes use him, of course. But I never held him between my fingers and looked at him and said: So, what can I find out with you today? I'd written three novels with him before I realised this was . . . like a cello, that I could play."

It's also important that Wallander is real. "No one could imagine James Bond stopping to inject himself with insulin," Mankell says. "That's because James Bond isn't real. So it's important that Wallander has diabetes, he's ill, his ideas progress, he has relationship problems. He changes, like we all do." It helps, too, that he thinks: "It's challenging to have him enter a room and think for 10 pages. But that's what I'm interested in – how he reads facts, traces, situations. Running around and shooting people is easy. And it isn't normal. Normally you solve problems by thinking."...

But now Wallander has reached the end of his road. Would Mankell, prolific and hugely successful for over 40 years, be happy for the rumpled detective to be his greatest legacy? He thinks. "I believe," he says, "the most important thing you do in your life, you may not even know what it is. It may be that one day you sat down on a bench to comfort someone who is crying. That could be the most important thing you ever do. So no, I would like to be thought of as a good, and quite generous man, who tried to make life a little better for others through what he did. And the things he wrote."...


Ken Wedding said...

Carol Stoops wrote: "Oh dear! This is terrible news! I didn't realize that there would be a last Wallander!"

Ken Wedding said...

Dale Stahl wrote, "Thanks for the tip – I’ve enjoyed the Wallander novels but hadn’t read what was earlier purported to be the last – now I’ve got two to add to my list!