Ystad: Lovely town for a murder

By Graham Reid

What really stirs behind the pretty facades of villages, like the Swedish one in which mystery series Wallander is set? asks Graham Reid.

Henning Mankell sets his Kurt Wallander novels in Ystad, Sweden. Photo / Thinkstock
Henning Mankell sets his Kurt Wallander novels in Ystad, Sweden. Photo / Thinkstock

So this is where the killings took place. All around here the bloody brutalities were acted out under this vast sky hanging like an ever-changing canopy over these golden fields of rape plants in bloom, tall pine forests and the dramatic, wind-blown coastline.

Lone wolves and serial killers walked through this photogenic landscape and along these orderly streets of tidy, well-kept homes. They hid behind the doors of remote country houses in this sparsely populated region.

Around here, ritual murderers did their dreadful business, and cyber-hackers plotted the downfall of the world's economic system to be triggered from the ATM machine in the town square where, on this fine afternoon, cheerful fruit sellers offer swollen ripe grapes and tart apples while old folk sun themselves on benches outside cafes.

Death and menace made their home in this charming place?

We are in southeast Sweden and around the port town of Ystad is where frightful murders occur.

At least they do in the fiction of Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who based his famous detective, Kurt Wallander, in this delightful little town.

These days - first through nine novels, the 13-episode series for Sweden television and, more recently, in the award-winning BBC adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh - the character of thoughtful, weary, flawed and driven Wallander has global fame. The books have been translated into 40 languages with more than 25 million copies sold worldwide.

Tomorrow, the Swedish series gets its first airing on New Zealand television, then next month the third in the Branagh series (the first two already available on DVD) also goes to air.

Wallander may just be a fictional figure, but for television audiences he is compelling viewing, and for Ystad and the surrounding region of Skane a boon for tourism.

Ystad (population fewer than 20,000) has Wallander Walks and you can go to where he buys hotdogs, has coffee and meets friends. You can stand outside his office (well, the local swimming pool, the exterior of which substitutes for the police station in the BBC series) and have your photo taken at the ATM.

While Wallander stories have been good for tourism, no one doubts their safety. The region has had fewer than 10 reported murders in more than a decade.

Picturesque Ystad never did much harm to anyone - you have to wonder why Mankell chose this lovely, genteel place for such murderous brutality and his exploration of the Swedish character.

The answer lies in that port on the other side of the railway line. It is the gateway to Europe through Poland and Germany just across a narrow stretch of the Baltic.

Two decades ago, according to Mankell, xenophobia emerged in this crossroads region, a place he has repeatedly referred to as "the Texas of Sweden" or "the South", by which he means a borderland. Drugs and illegal workers passed through this town so locals became increasingly suspicious of outsiders and itinerants.

The pretty little town quietly seethed in a way which the polite face of the Swedish character masked.

The progressive trends in society sit in brutal contrast to the conservative nature of the collective Swedish psyche.

For author Mankell, the insularity of the southern region and its small population seemed to magnify such tears in the social fabric. Then, of course, for the imaginative writer, there is that inescapable landscape.

Those endless blue skies sometimes punctuated by glorious cloud formations can turn thunderous and glowering, then go dark for months. Some days in winter there are as few as six hours of daylight. At that time the windswept Baltic sea breaks gloomily against that stormy shore and those remote homes in the pines look less like idyllic getaways than mysterious places holding secrets.

Mankell - who grew up in remote Sveg in central Sweden - knows small towns and their mentality. Sveg had fewer than 2000 people when he went to school there and lived with his father, a judge, in rooms above the courthouse. There, as in Ystad, the landscape's character impressed itself in the writer's mind.

But his Wallander series was always as much about changing culture as solving murders and that, plus the character of Wallander himself, has made Mankell (who is married to Eva Bergman, one of Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman's daughters) a forensic analyst of his country's psyche.

Media-shy Mankell has spoken of a darkness which spread through Swedish society after the murders of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 and Foreign Affairs Minister Anna Lindh in 2003, both killed on the streets of sophisticated, orderly Stockholm.

The country which prided itself on a liberal, industrious and egalitarian society suddenly doubted itself. Wallander is the cypher for this subtext in the novels, and a believable character whose life and attitudes change in the course of the stories.

He is separated but doesn't take off his ring despite his former wife having a new partner; works too hard, eats poorly and falls asleep on the couch; has a difficult relationship with his daughter, who worries about him; sometimes snaps impatiently at colleagues, is impetuous and occasionally intemperate. His eccentric, senile father (an artist who paints the same landscape over and over) dies so Wallander worries whether he has been a good son.

All this plays out while around him the substructure of his society rips itself apart.

If this sounds melodramatic, it doesn't translate that way in the film-length episodes of the BBC series, which many Swedes concede is superior to the earlier Swedish adaptations. The unshaven, careworn Branagh plays the harried Wallander with understatement. Frequently, Branagh's Wallander is seen quietly driving through that flat, beautiful landscape on empty roads. Or sitting alone in silence.

Unlike so many on-screen characters who seem emotionally immune to the world they confront - Jack Bauer in 24 is credited with over 250 killings in the eight seasons - Branagh's portrayal of Wallander invites the audience to enter his thoughts and doubts. He feels each death or confrontation deeply and is changed by them.

Of course, despite being filmed in and around Ystad, this is a fictional world. But the look of the BBC episodes - darker, more grainy and moody than the equally fearful Swedish series - is remarkable.

Shot on cutting-edge digital cameras in often-muted colour, the rooms seem stylish but dated, suggesting Swedish optimism and innovative interior design gone to seed in sometimes claustrophobic spaces. Exteriors are expansive, however, the glowering sky or the sea-battered shoreline oppressive in their elemental power.

When you are in this part of Sweden, the landscape in all its moods seems a gift to a cinematographer and Ystad is so toy-town picture perfect it had to have a seething undercurrent.

Houses painted bright blue, rich red or gentle green, cyclists pedalling down a quiet cobbled street, those golden fields of rape shimmering. Just beautiful.

And, if you watch Wallander, deadly.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates up to two flights a day from Auckland to London via Hong Kong. Ryanair flies regularly to Stockholm from Stansted, and there are frequent trains to Ystad via Malmo.

* The 13 episodes of the original Swedish series of Wallander screen weekly on the Rialto Channel from September 5 at 8.30pm. The first two series of the BBC adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh are available on BBC DVD. The third season starts on UKTV on October 15 at 8.30pm.

Graham Reid flew to London with assistance from Cathay Pacific. He travelled to Sweden at his own expense.

- NZ Herald

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