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Kenneth Branagh stars as Inspector Kurt Wallander in the BBC's recent adaptation of Henning Mankell's stories.
Kenneth Branagh stars as Inspector Kurt Wallander in the BBC's recent adaptation of Henning Mankell's stories.

Nordic exposure

Books Austere and uncompromising, Scandinavian crime fiction is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

Next month a host of literary luminaries will arrive in the capital to attend the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. As one of the most prolific Indian writers of the last 20 years, Amitav Ghosh is the first name to leap from the page; Rajaa Alsanea, the Saudi Arabian author of Girls of Riyadh, has similar popular appeal; meanwhile, Shashi Tharoor is an award-winning Indian writer who came close to succeeding Kofi Annan as the UN Secretary General in 2006; and from the European camp comes Henning Mankell, the Swedish crime writer and creator of Kurt Wallander.

Many are stalwarts of their genre, but Mankell, the author of numerous plays and novels, is causing the biggest stir among booksellers. He has enjoyed a huge spike in popularity since Wallander - the grumpy, middle-aged, fast-food-loving detective at the centre of 10 of Mankell's novels - made his small screen debut. With the lead character played by Kenneth Branagh, Wallander was screened by the BBC last November and has piqued British interest in an author who already enjoyed a huge following across the rest of mainland Europe.

Wallander is an impressive fictional creation: a dour but quick-minded slogger, slightly flabby and melancholy, but ultimately loveable. Starting with 1991's Faceless Killers, Mankell's books have been published all over the world, winning many prominent fans along the way. They are said to be read by presidents and politicians, and an entire industry in the Swedish city of Ystad, where the books are set, is dedicated to the sleuth. From location filming to guided tours of landmarks that feature in the stories, Wallander is far more than a fictional character: he is a franchise in his own right.

As for Mankell, the author's childhood was spent amid the snowdrifts of northern Sweden. No surprise, then, that his writing is filled with the bleached landscapes and industrial wastelands of his youth. As the son of a judge, his family lived above the town law courts - an experience which marked the beginning of Mankell's fascination with the justice system. After a brief spell in Paris during the student uprisings, he returned to Sweden to start a career in theatre. These days, though, he divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he works with the Teatro Avenida theatre, in the capital city of Maputo, and dedicates considerable time to Aids-awareness projects.

Mankell is not the only Scandinavian author in the spotlight, either. Interest in crime writing from the region has been steadily rising for over a decade, ever since the rave reviews picked up by the Danish writer Peter Høeg's 1994 novel Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. Others followed, including Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø, both from Norway, and Sweden's Håkan Nesser. Fossum's novel, When the Devil Holds the Candle, won the Gumshoe award for best European novel in 2007; Nesbø's books The Redbreast, The Devil's Star and Nemesis have received great acclaim in English translation, and Nesser's award-winning Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti stories are also soon to be published in English.

Meanwhile, few can have avoided the buzz created by the posthumous success of the Swedish author Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Painting technicoloured portraits of a variety of disturbed misfits, this writer's work is both realistic and thrilling. While his sudden death from a heart attack in 2004, at the age of 50, no doubt fanned the flames of publicity, the appeal of his novels speaks for itself. Now, with the final instalment of the three-book Millennium series scheduled for publication early next year, his fame looks likely to live on.

Crime fiction has been part of the Scandinavian landscape since the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö churned out 10 books in the decade between 1965 and 1975. Essentially police procedurals, they were also intended as social critiques - a trend which now seems to characterise the genre. Larsson was editor of the left-wing magazine Expo' for 25 years before his death and the Millennium series is full of characters whom society has failed. Likewise, Mankell's books raise questions of social responsibility, justice, morality and democracy.

Gone are the sleepy villages and geriatric detectives who fit in cases between cups of tea and a spot of gardening. Scandinavian crime writing shares many characteristics with the region's cold, hard and unforgiving winters. Certainly, both Larsson and Mankell portray their native landscape as a character in its own right, the polar winds that screech through their pages adding an intense melancholy to the characters and an absorbingly austere edge to their words. This is not the Scandinavia of so many clichés - a place of functional flat-packed furniture, reliable cars and liberal politics - but an altogether more real and rewarding portrayal of a region that is fast earning a global reputation for its tough, uncompromising fiction.

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