Wallander: a Swedish detective in America

Kurt Wallander, the brooding protagonist of Henning Mankell’s famed crime novels, recently came to United States’ television screens in a performance by Kenneth Branagh, giving viewers an unexpected opportunity for reflection, The Local’s Marge Thorell explains.

Wallander: a Swedish detective in America

The police procedural tells us a lot about our own world or worlds we are interested in. The most popular of these used to be set on British country estates where the upstairs-downstairs crowd congregated, then murdered each other. The solver of these crimes was either a suave inspector or an old lady.

Now, the preferred setting is Scandinavia: grimy areas of Stockholm or Olso, dingy little seaport towns, or Reykjavik. And the protagonists we focus on are everyday men and women, with problems much like ourselves, not the smooth, poetry-writing, intellectual, cool-headed academics from the UK.

Henning Mankell, the famous Swedish author, is now considered one of the great authors of detective fiction, on a par with Dashiell Hammet or Agatha Christie. He is compared with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish husband and wife team whose Inspector Martin Beck series started this trend. The somewhat demented protagonists from Swedish, Icelandic, and Norwegian crime novels, who look at their world like we look at ours, help us cope with what is sometimes seen as the great failed social experiment that is industrialized society’s social democracy—exemplified by the Swedish welfare state and the United States.

Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s complex, angst-ridden, and morose detective from Ystad, whose novels have sold millions of copies in the States as well as around the world, has finally come to American television audiences. Wallander’s saga was shown recently in a three-piece series, starring Kenneth Branagh, which started on May 10th, and ran through May 21st, 2009, with additional episodes under consideration.

We, in the States, are no stranger to TV mysteries and detective stories, especially the police procedural. When we turn on the TV, we are bombarded with cops, murderers, rapists, and all kinds of people with criminal intent. So Wallander, whose Ystad beat also presents him with perverts, is a more than welcome addition to that genre. Critics as well as audiences have been taken by the impressive interpretation of the Wallander character by the great British actor.

As portrayed by Branagh, Wallander is unhappy, hypertensive, diabetic, moody, yet interestingly perceptive. In the novels as well as on TV, Wallander deals unsuccessfully with an ex-wife who never did understand his job, an eccentric artist cop-hating father falling deeper and deeper into the grip of dementia, and a recalcitrant daughter. In addition, he has to solve the brutal crimes besetting his community. In the midst of all this personal chaos, he deplores what is happening to his society at large where young people commit crimes against humanity and injustice, racism, corruption, and permissiveness prevail.

Most agree that Branagh’s performance is brilliant. Now 48-years old, he can do so much with a look, a closing of his eyes for a second, a poignant pause – and tears. He is more brooding Dane than energetic Swede, but that is also fitting as Ystad was once a Danish outpost.

Viewers and critics are unanimous in their assessment that the opening sequence of the first film in the series, Sidetracked, was both visually stunning and horrifying. Here, Wallander has been called to a farmhouse because a young girl has isolated herself amidst the brilliant sunlit rapeseed fields, and then, after pouring gasoline all over herself, clicks a cigarette lighter, setting herself and her surroundings on fire. Wallander stares speechless once he realizes what she is planning to do—then runs toward her, shouting, but is too late. She explodes in front of him and his helplessness is palpable.

Not only is Branagh unforgettable in this series, but Ystad is, too. As the Mankell novels are as much about sociology as they are about crime, the setting is critical. Now Ystad is the prism by which we view not only Swedish society, but our own. We view Ystad’s town center – Gamla Stan – with its half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, and outlying estates. Ystad, beautiful and brutal—with its high winds in the winter, freezing rains coming off the Baltic, impenetrable fog that slowly covers the area like a wool blanket, snow, sleet, interminable winter—is a curiosity to us American viewers.

In both the novels and the PBS series, the old city is the second most interesting character after Wallander himself. Actually, scratch that, the town is Wallander, remote, dark, and brooding, except on occasional sunny summer days.

Once called Sweden’s window to the world, Ystad was an important port city in the 17th century, but in these novels, this is reversed: it is the world’s window to Sweden, with its problems as well as its failures.

Perhaps we are seeing Ystad and Wallander as the reflected image of ourselves and our own society. The United State’s great experiment in democracy has become tarnished over the past years. Much like Wallander, we try to solve the mysteries of our society, most brought about by decaying and failed political experiments. Much like Wallander, we continue to hope, we keep on going, and we deplore what we see and what our society has become, but dream of what it might be.

By Marge Thorell

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‘Even though you can survive here without Swedish, it’s respectful to make an effort’

British-born David Ashby came to Sweden in 2002. Moving from Brighton to Gothenburg to be with his now-wife, the English teacher-turned-author tells The Local that the past 16 years have been a voyage of cultural discovery.

'Even though you can survive here without Swedish, it's respectful to make an effort'
Brit David Ashby has found creative inspiration in his adopted Sweden. Photo: Mathias Sautermeister

This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.

“I met my wife, Elvira, at a salsa class in my hometown on the south coast of England,” he tells The Local. “She's Swedish and was in the UK for just four months, so when she moved back to Sweden we travelled back-and-forth to see each other for a while, until I decided to move. I bought a one-way ticket on the ferry, turning up in Gothenburg without a job or a plan.”

Happily, the TEFL-trained Brit was soon put in touch with another ex-Brighton resident, who offered him a role as a Corporate English teacher. “That was the start of things for me here in Sweden and I soon set up my own company, offering my services as an English proofreader and translator.”

Now based in Stockholm with his wife and children, Ashby has discovered first-hand that certain behaviour in Sweden can attract strange looks.

“I'm a talker. When I'm at a bus stop, or in a queue, I'll start a conversation. In the UK that's fine, but not so much in Sweden. People think I'm a bit odd. When we used to live in a flat I would see people hesitate about entering the lift if they saw me in it, as they were terrified I was going to start talking to them. Some of them even pretended they had forgotten something and turned round to go back to their flat rather than get into a lift with me!”

As a teacher he has seen this reticence reflected in the classroom. “I once had an introductory class with one student who came from the very north of Sweden. They're quite reserved up there, and during the whole lesson he hardly said anything. After that one class he never came back. Obviously the shock of having to speak in English was too much for him!”


Ashby expresses the importance of making an effort to learn Swedish: “Even though you can survive here without Swedish – I have friends here who do that – it's respectful to make an effort. And it's useful, especially with children, to be able to blend in, to assimilate.”

Picking up the language, however, has not been an easy process for the English teacher. “My pronunciation is awful. I can't pronounce where I live! It makes ordering taxis difficult. My wife gets annoyed with me – she says I completely ignore the three extra vowels in Swedish (å, ä, ö). In fairness, they're hard for a Brit to say.”

As well as pronunciation, the “lack of a please and thank you culture” in Sweden has been difficult to accept. “Even though I know in my mind that it's not rudeness when someone pushes past without apologizing, it can get to me, coming from an ultra-polite society like the UK.”

“Equally, there are things that are considered rude here that aren't at home. The importance of timekeeping is one; in England time is a bit of a flexible thing. You say 'on the hour', you meet at quarter past. Not so, here: if you agree a time, you meet at that time. Arriving late is considered disrespectful. It's reset my clock and changed my perception of time.”

While the children's author describes Sweden in the summer as “a paradise”, the winters have proved more trying. “The darkness and the cold can be difficult. When I came to Sweden I couldn't understand all the Swedes standing in patches of sunlight, looking up, as if communing with a higher entity. Now I get it. My wife has a light box to combat any winter gloom. I just grit my teeth and cope with it.”

Winters aside, Sweden has seeped under Ashby's skin and into his work. He's just written his debut book, which is heavily influenced by Swedish myth culture. “The book is called 'Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins'. Although it's set in Sussex (in the UK) there is a big Swedish influence. I first dreamed up the idea walking through the woods in Stockholm, the characters have names like Bengt, Nils, and Anna, and the evil character is inspired by the old Nordic legends of Mara, who brings nightmares. It's a British/Swedish fusion.”

Stockholm's woods proved the inspiration behind Ashby's debut book. Photo: Oskars Sylwan

“We've always been a family of storytellers; my wife Elvira has written and had published successful books for both children and adults. It was when my wife was publishing her books that I got in the mood to start writing properly. As I'd been reading the children a lot of bedtime stories, it felt natural to write for them.”

“One day, we were walking back home from Skärholmen in Stockholm through the woods, when we saw something glinting in the sun on the ground. We went over to see what it was – and it was a stone that looked like a tiny little book. I said, 'Imagine if it was a little book, and a goblin had dropped it.' As we continued walking home I made up a story about a goblin who had dropped his book, and his dog whose shadow we could see, but not the dog itself.  When we got home, Elvira said 'You should write that story down, and finish it'.”

“I did, and then submitted the book to the editor behind the Harry Potter series. The editor liked the story, wanted to publish it – and the rest is history. It comes out from Pushkin Children's in February 2019.”

“If hadn't moved to Sweden and seen my very talented and productive Swedish wife start to make a career as an author, I wouldn't have started writing 'Gribblebob' so I have my new country to thank for that.”

You can follow David Ashby on Twitter here. His debut book, 'Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins', will be on shelf in February 2019 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.