Crime Writer Henning Mankell Dies — Author Used Imagination To Survive, Explore Social Problems

Swede Henning Mankell, the crime writer who introduced the diabetic, troubled alcoholic detective Kurt Wallander to the world, has died of cancer at 67.

Over the years, Mankell’s books sold more than 40 million copies and been translated into 40-plus languages. His Wallander novels have been turned into movies and TV series, the title character played by three actors — Swedes Rolf Lassgard, Krister Henriksson, and an actor more widely known to American audiences, Kenneth Branagh, BBC News reported.

“In life and in art Henning Mankell was a man of passionate commitment. I will miss his provocative intelligence and his great personal generosity,” Branagh said. “Aside from his stringent political activism, and his decades of work in Africa, he also leaves an immense contribution to Scandinavian literature. His loving family, and those privileged to know him, together with readers from all over the world, will mourn a fine writer and a fine man.”

Henning’s mysteries fell into a genre of “dismal Nordic” crime fiction populated by gloomy characters, the Wall Street Journal added. Mankell’s best-sellers are set in Sweden and Mozambique, following Wallander (whose name Mankell found by thumbing through a phone book) and began with 1989’s Faceless Killers.

That novel, written to address a burgeoning xenophobia in Henning’s native Sweden, follows a murder investigation in which the only clue is that the perpetrators are foreigners. The speculation results in hate crimes across the country and was Henning’s way of addressing racism, which he considered a crime.

Mankell never intended to write a series, unaware until he’d written three novels that Kurt had become an “instrument who could be useful” as Henning continued to explore themes of racism and social justice in his novels. But, of course, at the heart of those serious ideas was a bumbling detective who was kind of an “a–hole,” as Mankell often described him.

“I wanted to show how difficult it is to be a good police officer. But after, I think, the third novel, I spoke to this friend of mine and asked what sort of disease I could give him. Without hesitating, she said: ‘Diabetes!’ So I gave him diabetes and that made him more popular. I mean, you could never imagine James Bond giving himself a shot of insulin, but with Wallander it seemed perfectly natural.”

But Henning never considered himself a genre writer and wasn’t willing to “write a crime story just for the sake of it, because I always want to talk about certain things.”

Mankell was actively involved in social issues most of his life. In Sweden, he identified as a left-wing anti-colonial political activist. Henning protested Vietnam and South African apartheid, supported the Palestinian’s struggle for statehood, called for sanctions against Israel, and worked to fight against AIDS. His books, according to Deutsche Welle, were peppered with messages about environmental destruction, corruption, and social injustice. More recently, and despite his illness, Henning spoke about Europe’s refugee crisis.

Henning led a fascinating life. Born in 1948, he was raised by his father after his parents divorced and didn’t see his mother until he was 15. Growing up in northern Sweden, Mankell learned how to rely on his imagination to survive.

“In my mind I created another mother for myself to replace the one who had left. And I think this was me at my best, when the forces of imagination had the same value as the real world.”

Henning left school at 16 and joined the merchant navy. Two years later, he moved to Paris, where he got involved in activism and political debate. By 20, Mankell was back in Sweden and wrote his first play, then his debut novel. Over the years, he divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he ran a theater company.

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Then in 2014, Henning was diagnosed with cancer when he visited an orthopedic surgeon for a slipped disc. Doctors found tumors in his lung and neck. Afterward, he shared his experiences with cancer through the medium he’d always used to express his ideas and cope with hardship — writing.

“It was a catastrophe for me. Everything that was normal to me up to that point was gone all of a sudden. No one had died of cancer in my family. I had always assumed I’d die of something else.”

Henning is survived by his wife of 17 years, Eva Bergman, and his son, Jon Mankell.

[Photo Courtesy Valerio Pennicino / Getty Images]