The Swedish Detectives

The dour, morose police inspector Kurt Wallander is modern Sweden's most popular literary character. The nine Wallander mysteries that author Henning Mankell penned have sold more than 20 million copies in 34 countries. But it has only been in recent years that English-speaking readers have discovered those novels.

Mankell is famous for his lively and intricate police procedurals. Not surprisingly, Mankell's father was a judge, and the family lived above the courthouse where Judge Mankell presided over cases. In a 2003 interview the author told The Guardian, "Ever since I was a child I have been interested in the justice system and how it works."

Cover of 'The Return of the Dancing Master'

Henning Mankell's The Return of the Dancing Master

The Sweden that Inspector Wallander inhabits is fraying at the seams. It's a country still haunted by the1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme. And Sweden's open society faced another major shock in 2003, when Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store. Mankell's writing reflects a national loss of innocence. In Sidetracked, a retired Swedish justice minister is brutally murdered and scalped. But while the violence in Mankell's mysteries can be grotesque, it is never gratuitous.

Mankell is deeply troubled by what he sees as seeping corruption, racism toward an increasing immigrant population, and spiritual alienation at the heart of the aging Swedish welfare state.

For over two decades, Mankell found his own way to distance himself from Swedish social problems in order to write about them. He spends half the year in Mozambique, serving as a director at Mozambique's national theater. His wife -- and his partner in dramatic productions in Mozambique -- is the daughter of film director Ingmar Bergman. The rest of the year, the Mankells live on a farm near Ystad in the flat, desolate landscape his novels describe.

Wallander and his police colleagues in Ystad -- a Baltic port town -- strive to protect the public at a time of steep budget cuts. The police department is chronically understaffed and outgunned by increasingly violent criminals. The dispeptic inspector never seems to get enough sleep, even on a good day. His private life is bleak and lonely. Wallander's wife has long left him, and he has an estranged relationship with his daughter. He joylessly eats too much takeout food and is often depressed when he's not filled with self-loathing. Despite it all, Wallander is a good policeman and slogs his way to the truth in a criminal investigation even if he does make some wrong turns.

Swedish women adore him because he's so vulnerable and needy. Middle-aged Swedish men identify with his weight troubles, receding hairline and midlife angst. German tourist groups make pilgrimages to Ystad where they besiege the local police station for autographs from the officers who, of course, have read all the Wallander mysteries.

Mankell's latest book, The Return of the Dancing Master, explores Sweden's neo-Nazi movement. In a departure, Wallander is not featured. Instead the novel introduces a new police detective, a more youthful but equally alienated sleuth, the 30-something Inspector Stefan Lindman. The inspector, coping with a recent cancer diagnosis, investigates the murder of a former colleague. As in Mankell's other books, the characters live in loneliness -- whether they are the criminals or the policemen trying to bring them to justice. Lindman is as stoical in his devotion to duty as Wallander. And Mankell makes clear that it's on the frail shoulders of such flawed but honorable policemen that Swedish society must stem a creeping darkness of chaos and evil.

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