Henning Mankell’s region of Skane, in the coastal badlands of southern Sweden, is a great place to hide. Evildoers flock there from overseas, and hometown baddies–war criminals, sex traders, domestic abusers–are a dime a dozen. In Skane, the long arm of the law must flex and stretch a little further despite sleepless nights, chest pains, and the occasional hangover. No wonder Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s irritable and weary police inspector, wants to escape. “I’m searching for the slayers of the dead and I can’t even manage to pay attention to the living,” he says in Faceless Killers, the first in Mankell’s nine-book series of police procedurals featuring the beleagured detective. “For a dizzying instant his entire consciousness was filled only with one urge. To take off. Flee. Disappear. Start a new life.”

Mankell, an author, playwright, and director, left Sweden at 16 to work as a merchant seaman. He traveled to Africa in 1972 and visited repeatedly in the years that followed, until in 1987 he was invited to Mozambique to help start a theater company, Teatro Avenida. Seventeen years later, he still divides his time between Sweden and Africa, where he’s currently working with parents dying of AIDS to compile oral histories for their children.

“I never had any romantic reason to go to Africa,” Mankell says. “When I was a young author I had a strong intuitive feeling that I needed one more perspective, and I went to Africa to find this, and also to South America. The images I found in Africa, of the world and of the human condition, combined with my European perspective. Africa made me a better European and a better author.”

Since the appearance of Faceless Killers in 1991, Mankell’s bleak thrillers–which illuminate once-placid Sweden’s struggle with the modern plagues of racism, xenophobia, and violence–have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and been translated into 30 languages. But it wasn’t until the New Press published Faceless Killers in 1997 that Mankell began to develop an American following. In The Return of the Dancing Master, published by Random House Vintage in February of this year, Mankell introduced a new detective, Stefan Lindman, and stateside fans are eagerly awaiting the 2005 publication of Before the Frost, the first in a planned trilogy featuring Wallander’s daughter Linda in her first years on the force.

Henning Mankell reads at noon on Saturday, June 5, at Columbia College Residence Hall, 731 S. Plymouth, as part of the Printers Row Book Fair (see Section Two). It’s free; call 312-222-3986.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ulla Montan.