All roads literary lead to Scandinavia, it seems, certainly where crime novels are concerned. Is it all hype with no substance? Is it just a case of giving yourself a name which sound like an over-priced brandy, then slapping together a manuscript full of bizarre place names and nasty weather? Then, do you just wait for the uber-dollars to roll in from a grateful publisher speechless with joy at the prospect of another Nordic find. . .or is there slightly more to it than that? If there weren’t, many writers would change our names to Karlstrand Uplander and cobble together yarns of tall ships, flags, lightening, boning knives, and the obligatory depressive with a huge heart, small daughter, and a medium-sized police badge. Then, we’d simply have to wait by the ATM machine for the royalties to pop obligingly out. The bottom line is these Nordic writers can actually write, and extremely well, too.
Henning Mankell, with his 30 million-plus sales, is one of the most successful. He’s a great example of what I think is a rule of thumb. The place a writer comes from, emotionally and geographically, sets his “voice”. It’s different for actors. A thespian from New York can quite happily produce a completely believable character from, say, Rome. But when a writer from New York tries to write in a Roman voice, it doesn’t work. They can write about Rome and characters from there, but that’s different. The voice is what matters.
Mankell’s got a terrific writing voice, and I had the pleasure of joining in a radio programme for the BBC (scroll down) in London, which was a critique of his work. He came into the recording studio with that face, the one which looks like you‘ve stolen something from him. The interview got off to a great start (not really). There’s a huge debate in the United Kingdom about the correct way to pronounce the name of Mankell’s central character, Wallander. The programme’s presenter had already made his mind up how it should sound, and when he greeted Mankell, he was all set to go. Mr. Mankell, however, put him right about the way it should be pronounced—the Swedish way. I loved that. Even the correction was so Swedish. A British writer would have just gone, “yeah,whatever, no problem.” Mankell wasn’t having any of it. We didn’t proceed until the pronunciation was well-established. How much more do you think his Swedishness pervades his narrative voice?
Mankell weaves his stories like a manic seamstress, paying attention to every little detail without fail. It is mesmeric and masterful. You can hear the wood creak and the wind blow in his books. The tension and heartache of his characters reach out from the page and grab you by throat if you dare look away, or even contemplate giving them anything, except your undivided attention.
Once we had gotten the interview underway, the questions came fast and thick. They were very detailed, and Henning Mankell loved it. He really appreciated being probed and pushed into giving up something more than just the “I get up and write a thousand words then go and play with my cars.” It seems he was brought up above the court house where his father was a judge. Some of the related questions got downright personal. A Brit would have said “none of your business” (and I suspect some American writers would, too), but Mankell was extremely positive towards the personal questions. This underlined, for me, his quality as a writer. Put it all on the table and get into it. No half measures, or a bit of this or a bit of that. This all-or-nothing is reflected in the brutality of some of the characters in his books and the very naughty and violent things they do. He is not a comforting, chicken-soup type of writer.
Human beings are violent. They are loving and gentle and kind, but they are also violent. There’s no getting away from it. As a Nordic writer, it’s almost expected of you, I suspect, but not all writers can hold that ground with such confidence and poise. How, you may ask, did I dare to pronounce Wallander when it was my turn? I couldn’t repeat it. I just called him the Inspector.
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia, where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish. His next book, The Politics of Murder (The X-Press UK/US), will be published July 31, 2011.