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Henning Mankell on murder, mystery and growing old with Wallander

Henning Mankell

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

It's a bittersweet day for the legion of Kurt Wallander fans in North America. For the first time in a decade, a new novel featuring the immensely popular Swedish detective hits the stores. But readers will want to turn the pages of the 10th book in the series slowly - because it's also the final Wallander mystery from writer Henning Mankell.

Long before Stieg Larsson became the face of Swedish crime fiction with his computer-hacking heroine, Mankell plucked his protagonist from the pages of a phone book. The novelist wanted to write a story about racism in Sweden and decided he would need a policeman to do that. So, in 1989, he found the name Wallander in a local directory, and the lonely, rule-breaking detective was born.

Since then, 35 million readers have come to know the policeman and his evolving personal troubles (drinking and divorce, for starters) while exploring the social issues facing Sweden. Wallander books are sold in 45 languages. There are television series and films based on the books in Sweden, as well as a version on the BBC, Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh. And tourists regularly flock to Ystad, the town in southern Sweden where the books are set, for tours of the fictional detective's haunts.

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In his new book, The Troubled Man, Mankell once again turns to murder and mystery. The plot centres on a retired naval commander who suddenly disappears, leaving no clues but a buried past involving Cold War subterfuge as well as personal secrets.

But this isn't a typical Wallander police procedural, says Mankell on the phone during a visit to France: "He is not actually solving a case. He himself is the case."

Wallander takes on the case of the missing officer for family reasons: His daughter is engaged to the officer's son. More personally, Wallander spends much of the novel looking inward, facing the fact that he is aging.

"In this story, he and I sort of come together," says Mankell, noting that because they are both 63 he could talk about his own fears through his character.

Early in The Troubled Man, Wallander finds himself forgetting the purpose of a trip as his car pulls up to his destination. Is he simply stressed? Or is this a sign of dementia? That's what really worries Mankell about getting older. "I don't think I am afraid of dying," he says. "What I'm afraid of is that I will continue to be physically fit, but I will start losing my brain."

When Mankell combined that concern with what he calls "the biggest scandal in Sweden in my lifetime" - when foreign submarines invaded Swedish waters in 1982, and local politicians blamed the Soviet Union without convincing evidence - he knew he had one more story to tell. Part mystery and part thriller, his new novel moves at a slower pace than other Wallander books and is more introspective. As Wallander looks into the naval commander's past and digs up evidence about the submarine incidents, he deals with his own health as many of the pivotal people from his past make appearances.

Mankell hadn't planned on writing this book: 10 years ago, he was sure he had finished with Kurt Wallander. He had written one book focusing on Linda, Wallander's daughter, who also becomes a police officer, and was thinking about continuing the series with her.

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But then "something very strange and very sad happened," Mankell says. That book, Before The Frost, had been made into a movie in Sweden, and after the filming was over, the actress playing Linda committed suicide. Although it had nothing to do with the project, Mankell said "it felt completely impossible to write about this woman again."

Not that Wallander is his only creation, the series is only 25 per cent of Mankell's work. He has a dozen other novels and a couple of children's series to his name, and some 40 plays, as well as humanitarian projects in Africa where he lives part of the year (he splits his time between Stockholm and Mozambique). And Mankell himself is not much like his detective. He's a serious and generous conversationalist, who in person has a courtly grace about him, the kind of man who takes your arm as he escorts you down the hall.

Still, he is most often associated with Wallander.

When asked why this brooding, sometimes angry, often unhappy detective is so appealing, Mankell says, "I call it the diabetes syndrome." After the third novel, he says, he asked a friend who was also a doctor what disease she would give Wallander. Without hesitation she said diabetes, since sooner or later he would get it from his lifestyle of little exercise and unhealthy eating. So in the fourth novel Mankell gave him diabetes only to see his character became yet more popular.

"No one can imagine a character like James Bond stopping to give himself a shot of insulin," says Mankell, but because Wallander keeps changing, as we all do, he is more believable and more like a friend.

Like any friend, Wallander will be missed - though perhaps not by his creator, who has said it's unlikely they would have been pals if Wallander was a living person.

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As for what's next, Mankell says he's writing a novel that has nothing to do with crime fiction. He's also writing a play and he's finished a TV series about his late father-in-law, Ingmar Bergman (he's been married to theatre director Eva Bergman since 1998), which will be directed by Susanne Bier, who won this year's Oscar for best foreign film ( In a Better World).

Mind you, all these projects don't spell the end of crime writing for Mankell. If, in fact, the Wallander books can even be labelled crime fiction.

As Mankell is quick to point out, the genre is often misunderstood. It's not just about finding out whodunit, it's about understanding the world through the lens of crime and justice, he says, citing Crime and Punishment (about a brutal murder, but so much more), Heart of Darkness (crime fiction about the European abuse of Africa) and even Medea ("If there had been a police force in Greek society, there would have been policemen in the play").

"To put up the mirror of crime in front of you is one of the oldest ways of telling a story that exist," he says.

Fans, take heart.

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