Just about the only thing worth watching on telly this spring has been the second season of  the Swedish Wallander dramatisations, which recently drew to a close on BBC4. Wallander is the world-weary, middle-aged detective, created by the Swedish crime-writer Henning Mankell, who operates in Ystad, a small town at Sweden’s southern tip. In the first season we got to know Wallander, a thoroughly curmudgeonly character who drinks too much, has diabetes, and doesn’t get on that well with anyone.  He has few friends,  his wife has left him, and he has troubled relationships with both his father (who paints the same landscape over and over again, and strongly disapproves of his son’s decision to join the police force)  and his daughter (who survived a suicide attempt in her teens).

This may sound laughably overdrawn, but the success of the series is the strength of the character portrayals and the focus on the evolving relationships between the police officers in their work and after hours. As Mark Lawson wrote in an  appreciation in The Guardian:

We think of crime fiction as being all about plot but – the more that you examine the genre – the important aspects are location and central character. A crime novel needs a distinctive person and a place. It can be objected that Mankell’s hero, Kurt Wallander – middle-aged, depressive, unhealthy – is recognisably a Scandanavian relative of Morse, Dalziel, Rebus and other pessimistic detectives. But the Swedish setting is largely unexplored for English readers and the sense of the nation as a lapsed paradise – a liberal’s dream increasingly disfigured by crime – adds greatly to the power of the books.

The Swedish Wallander films are produced by Yellow Bird (who, surprisingly, also produce the English series, with Kenneth Branagh).  The first season began with Before the Frost, the only episode based on one of the original novels. This was followed by 13 new stories, starring Krister Henriksson as Kurt Wallander and Johanna Sällström as Linda Wallander.

Before the second season began came news of Johanna Sällström’s suicide, which may in part have been caused by her experiences in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.She was in Thailand with her three year old daughter and they survived only because she held on to a tree with one hand, and held her daughter with the other. After her death, Mankell was unable to write another novel with Linda, saying his grief and guilt were too great.

As a consequence, the second season introduced new characters – the main interest being the arrival of the new prosecutor, Katarina, and Wallander’s stiff and stuttering relationship with her. The characters of Isabelle and Pontus, the two trainees, also provided new interest.

Although I like the British version – Branagh is a good choice of casting and the films clearly benefit from also being produced byYellow Bird, and being filmed in original Swedish locations. However, Krister Henriksson is, I think, the best Wallander. The first season of British productions, starring Kenneth Branagh, was filmed in Ystad during 2008. The first season comprised six films based on Mankell novels with the same titles.  During the summer and autumn of 2009 another three films were shot in Ystad based on Henning Mankell books. The first season was well received when it was broadcast on BBC1 in December 2008. British critics were positive. The Times wrote that “this distinctly superior cop show is both spare and suggestive, and brilliantly acted”.  At the 2009 BAFTA TV Awards, Wallander won the prize for best Drama Series.

In 2008 the Sunday Times published an interview with Mankell:

Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective “must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour. He talks as the man of his age talks; that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness”.

Inspector Wallander is Sweden’s most successful literary export, an international brand, yet it’s hard to see why at first glance. He is astonishingly miserable, fairly ugly and so monumentally unhealthy, he should have his own dedicated obesity czar. He eats too much fried food, drinks heavily and — across eight novels — has been sued for police brutality, been shot and stabbed, lost his wife in a messy divorce, struggled to build a relationship with his daughter and gunned down a man by accident. He is wonderfully pessimistic about the citizens he guards and usually solves crimes through luck and slog, not cunning inspiration. It’s little surprise that he increasingly believes he shouldn’t be a policeman any more.

The Stockholm-born Henning Mankell writes Wallander as so damn Swedish, it makes your heart sing. Strindberg or Bergman could have created this man with ease. Yet he’s a huge global hit, selling about 30m books in 100 countries, translated into 40 languages. Perhaps it’s because his mission is the greatest a literary sleuth can accept: to explore the dark heart of society and, in his case, the collapse of the liberal Swedish dream. When I meet Mankell, who was a successful author before he created his gloomy gumshoe, he explains that Wallander was born in May 1989, out of a need to talk about the creeping xenophobia he was witnessing in his home country. The first book examines the anti-immigration sentiments that boil over when an elderly couple are presumed murdered by “foreigners”.

“I had no idea this would be the start of a long journey,” Mankell says. “I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden. And, since xenophobia is a crime, I needed a police officer. So the story came first, then the character. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden — and Europe — in the 1990s. The best use of that tool was to say ‘What story shall I tell?’, then put him in it.”

“My ambition from the beginning was to show a man who was always changing, never fixed,” Mankell says. “That is one of the secrets to his success. He has a working-class background, and to become a police officer, he had to choose his place in society. At that time, you had to be conservative. But he’s not completely sure about what’s right and wrong. I call this changing process the diabetes syndrome. After the fourth book, I asked a doctor friend of mine, ‘Having read the books, what kind of disease would you give him?’ She said, ‘Diabetes.’ Immediately. So I gave him diabetes and that made him even more popular.”

“People see how essential the relationship between democracy and the system of justice is,” he argues. “We know that if the system of justice doesn’t work, democracy is doomed. Wallander is worried about that, and so are many people in democracies. Maybe that’s why he is so popular. I am a very radical person — as radical as when I was younger. So my books all have in common my search for understanding of the terrible world we are living in and ways to change it.”

Both the Swedish and the British series have been notable for their haunting title music.  The theme over the closing titles in the Swedish series is ‘Quiet Nights’  sung by Anna Ternheim; the British version gave a tremendous boost to the sales of Despite the Snow by Emily Barker when it used ‘Nostalgia’ from that album, a haunting song whose setting is about as far as you can get from the streets of Ystad:

Tram wires cross Melbourne skies
Cut my red heart in two


One thought on “Wallander

  1. I’ve only recently discovered the Swedish Wallander series with Henriksson as the titular character…but I have enjoyed every single episode. The quality and craft are real joys to watch and absorb. I especially like your point about the necessity of character in crime fiction. In the US, we’re dogged by many procedural dramas that spend only peripheral energies on who the characters are, in favor of the crime at hand. It’s refreshing to see a “hero” like Mankell’s Kurt Wallander trying to find his way in an increasingly cynical society.

    Thanks for the post!

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