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June 11, 2004

Hanging Out With Henning Mankell

by Ron Hogan

"I'm here tonight as a fan," said Michael Ondaatje. He was joined by several hundred other admirers of the internationally bestselling Inspector Wallander novels for a rare American appearance by Swedish author Henning Mankell (though some folks might have had trouble remembering his name). I'm fairly new to the series, but I got lucky--the book I'd just finished reading this morning, Faceless Killers, was the one Mankell brought with him, reading the scene that introduces Wallander, awakened by a late-night phone call to investigate a reported murder at a desolate farmhouse:

A time to live and a time to die, he thought as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He had adopted this incantation many years ago, when he was a young policeman cruising the streets of Malmö, his home town. A drunk had pulled out a big butcher's knife as he and his partner were trying to take him away in the squad car from Pildamm Park. Wallander was stabbed deep, right next to his heart. A few millmetres were all that saved him from an untimely death. He had been 23 then, suddenly profoundly aware of what it meant to be a policeman. The incantation was his way of fending off the memories.

After the short excerpt, Mankell recounted a short anecdote about walking along a beach in Mozambique that was meant to demonstrate how little the world's cultures understand each other, even as technology brings them into closer and more consistent contact. Then he sat down and took some questions from Ondaatje, who brought up Mankell's active theatrical life, suggesting that his experience as a playwright and stage director might have some influence on the "direction" he exercises over Wallander and the other members of the Ystad police ensemble. Mankell allowed that his background did give him some understanding of group dynamics which was particularly useful. Then he revealed that he'd wanted to tell stories ever since he was eight years old; Hemingway had just won the Nobel and the young boy had badgered his grandmother into reading him The Old Man and the Sea despite her insistence that he wouldn't understand it, and the power of that story made him determined to tell his own.

Ondaatje compated Mankell to LeCarre, suggesting that both authors had "chosen a genre and made something more of it," but Mankell was more restrained in his own discussion of the series, pointing out that he'd started out writing a crime novel only because it was the most convenient way to make the points about racism that he'd wanted to make when he set out to write Faceless Killers. He was equally restrained in his discussion of Wallander, who he seems to view primarily as a tool for telling certain types of stories which he can use or discard at will. "I'm not dependent on him," he insisted. "I'm not even sure I really like him." He sees "very little" of himself in the character, other than their age and shared enthusiasm for Italian opera. He's even shifting the inspector into the background for his next novel, Before the Frost, which won't come out in the U.S. until next February (though the Brits will have it in hand by September, so maybe you can get one from Canada if you can't wait, especially after you read this review by one of Mankell's translators). Instead, the story focuses on Wallander's daughter, Linda, who will be a rookie on the Ystad police force. But, Mankell assured his fans, Wallander will still be around, and Linda will even be able to tell us some things about him from an all-new angle.


Nope, not Canada, because his US publisher also has Canadian rights, and Harvill (UK publisher) is UK-only, I believe. Although certain Canadian bookstores might have the US editions in stock...

Posted by: Sarah at June 11, 2004 08:05 AM

I'm very excited to hear that the new book will feature Linda W.! I first read these Mankell books last year and gobbled them all up in about a week, now awaiting more. I really, really hate Le Carre for his pompous upper-middle-brow ambitions and feel that the comparison isn't fair to Mankell. These books are excellent. Although if you read them all at once, you see they have the common flaw of detective series, repetitive characterization of the central characters....

Posted by: Jenny at June 11, 2004 11:11 AM

He's also appearing here in Cambridge at the Harvard Book Store today at 6. He's really popular at this store.

Posted by: bookdwarf at June 11, 2004 12:15 PM
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