I'm in two minds about Henning Mankell. He doesn't do plot -- surprisingly, for such a mainstream writer -- but, like some other Swedish authors, he really does coffee and sandwiches. Such details bring the Wallander novels alive. Here is the reluctant crime writer on crime and location:
Q: Your 'Wallander' novels too seem to chronicle important changes in society.Martin Cruz Smith is a journalist who wrote pulps before sweating 11 years on Gorky Park, the novel that would become the first of several starring Arkady Renko. The subsequent Renko novels have tapered off in length -- Smith returning to his pulp habits, maybe -- but maintain the tone, and are thick with detail. Smith spoke to Anna Mundow about researching place and time:
HENNING MANKELL: It is twenty years since I wrote the first book, and in that time some interesting things have happened. When I started I realized that crime itself was going through changes, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Eastern Europe. Earlier you'd only see criminality in a big city like Stockholm but now you can buy drugs even in small towns. Look at where Ystad is situated, down south in Sweden in a border area close to the European continent – you could say that the Baltic Sea is our Rio Grande.
Q: Your choice of setting the books in Ystad appears to have created a trend.
HM: Yes, but today, I'm sorry to say, there's a lot of very bad crime fiction being written in Sweden where writers use small town settings without any real point. If you set a crime novel in Gotland just because you spend your holidays in a cottage there, I'd call it ridiculous. With a few exceptions, much of the crime fiction published in Swedish is trash.
Q. "Stalin's Ghost" revisits the Chechen war. Are historical events starting points for you?My friend Paul Reynolds loved John Le Carré. One birthday when I made the error of gifting him yet another copy of Single And Single he accepted it with enthusiasm -- 'One can never have too many,' he said. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is built almost entirely on details of time and place: the narrative plays out in the characters' memories. (The action centerpiece is Peter Guillam stealing a folder from a library.) Here is Le Carré on location in an interview by George Plimpton in 1996:
A. Well, I had to begin somewhere, and the Chechen war is practically a coloring book of disasters. I was interested to read about Chechens in Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." Then I read a little Lermontov, a little Tolstoy where there is a theme of this wild, hono r-bound, somewhat privileged society. That's one of the great things about what I do; I'm allowed to follow any trail.
Q. Is Arkady's environment increasingly bleak?
A. With "Gorky Park" I thought I had done my Russian book. Then Russia changed. I couldn't get back in, so I got on the factory ship, the Polar Star. I could sense that things were changing. Then at the end of "Red Square" there was great hope that things were coming together, a triumphant feeling. That has disappeared. Arkady is more and more thrown back on his own resources, which makes what he does all the more singular and dangerous.
Q. You literally couldn't get back into the Soviet Union?
A. Literally. I was barred from the country.
There's some kind of constant interaction between the fantasy that I brought with me to the location — the place as character — and what happens to me after that, the way the fantasy takes on some semblance of truth. What we want is not authenticity; it is credibility. In order to be credible, you have to dress the thing in clothes of authenticity.