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Communists and cops—the radical roots of Henning Mankell’s noir

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The late Henning Mankell’s Wallander stories built on social realism—but the genre’s roots lie in a Marxist critique of Sweden, says?Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2475
Henning Mankell, creator of Wallander
Henning Mankell, creator of Wallander (Pic: Flickr/Pal Fest)

The radical Swedish writer Henning Mankell, best known for the Kurt Wallander detective novels, died last week. He is the writer most associated with the genre of “Scandinavian Noir”, alongside Stieg Larsson, who wrote the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Television series based on the books alongside thrillers such as The Bridge and The Killing popularised the genre. Here cops, brought into conflict with a corrupt system, unearth the “dark heart” of society. 

The Scandinavian settings seem made for the crime thriller. Critics are fond of remarking how the long dark nights represent the troubled protagonists. Kurt Wallander epitomised this. He’s an alcoholic who goes through a forced separation then divorce with his wife. And he has a troubled relationship with his daughter.

Many of the characters are near sociopaths who unearth the truth because they cannot accept the norms. But more than the moody atmospherics, it’s the social criticism that hooks us. The plots are dark and the crimes are a psychological assault on the audience. 

In Mankell’s first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, farmer Johannes Lovgren is tortured to death in the family’s isolated farmstead. His wife Maria is beaten and left for dead with a noose around her neck. 

It looks at the rising tide of racism in the 1980s and 90s in Sweden—a supposedly “liberal” and “open” society. Many blame the murders on the “foreigners” in a refugee camp, which is later firebombed.

Wallander himself is no liberal or left winger. He complains about the number of refugees coming in.

In Sidetracked, a teenage refugee burns herself to death in a field. Wallander’s investigation links the woman’s horrific death to a minister’s murder and a trafficking racket at the top of the Swedish ruling class. 

Scandinavian Noir is built on the question, “What went wrong with Swedish society?” To much of the world Sweden seemed to have achieved a utopian society in the years following the Second World War. 

Its leftist “social democratic” governments were introducing the benefits of liberal socialism and a strong welfare state.  

But for Marxist journalists turned writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Sweden wasn’t marching towards socialism. It was descending into a capitalist nightmare, as ordinary people fell through the cracks of a corrupt social democratic monolith. 

Sjowall and Wahloo combined the police procedural style of US writer Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels with Marxism, to create Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team. 

The ten book series builds in complexity to expose a society filled with exploitation and oppression. In the first book, Roseanna, a man molests and murders US tourist Roseanna McGraw. The criminal is caught in a sting operation, but in the process a woman police officer is assaulted. Beck himself has doubts about the tactics.

The eighth novel, The Locked Room, was full of biting social comment. “The fact of the matter is that the so-called welfare state abounds with sick, poor and lonely people, living at best on dog food, who are left uncared for until they waste away and die in their rat hole apartments,” they wrote.

By the later books it is obvious that the real criminals are the social democrats who’ve failed to deliver. With social democracy’s light waning in the 1980s, rising racism against refugees punctured the myth of liberal Sweden. 

This is where Mankell’s Wallander, first published in 1991, comes from. For Mankell, himself a political activist, racism was the “real criminal act”. 

Scandinavian Noir’s detective protagonists are meant to be likable. But they often still seem realistic, with all the bigotries you’d expect from a senior cop. And its innovative method of using crime to uncover a criminal society of inequality and oppression will continue to grip us.

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