It’s actually pretty peaceful in Sweden’s fictional murder capital

2011-09-07 00:00

“THIS is a very peaceful place,” says police inspector Charlotte Lindh as families flock past towards an open-air flea market on a bright Saturday morning. “I am happy I can bring up my children in Ystad.”

At the other end of Stora Ostergatan, the main street through the southern Swedish port and market town, milling shoppers halt on the main square to applaud parading military bands and Scottish pipers, in town for an annual festival.

Just like any small provincial European town in the seasonal sunshine on the first day of a warm weekend.

Perhaps, but Ystad, with its 17 000-odd regular inhabitants, is different. For millions of thriller fans around the world, the medieval idyll of brightly painted thatched cottages an olde- worlde — but with all mod cons — ­hotels is the murder-and-mayhem ­capital of Scandinavia.

Around its narrow cobblestone streets, the thoroughfares of the modern suburbs and the port, stalk the shades of the police heroes and heroines — as well as the villains — of the 11 Wallander novels of 63-year-old Swedish writer Henning Mankel.

Three series of Swedish television films, eagerly snatched up by broadcasters across the globe, have added many more mystery stories to the ­canon — all with plots approved by the author, if not written by him.

And Irish-born international star, ­actor Kenneth Branagh, has played the key role in British television versions — also popular in Sweden — of three of the novels, with more being shot around the town this year.

First launched into the world by Mankel in 1991, the gruff, introspective Inspector Kurt Wallander of the ­Ystad police has tracked killers and other assorted villains through the town and the picture-postcard ­countryside beyond.

The death rate in each novel runs at an average of four.

Right there on Stortorget (Old Square), the unathletic, fast-food- ­addict inspector has a fight to the death to stop a criminal mastermind wrecking the world economy in an intricate international operation to be sparked from an ATM machine.

“One could say it is a pity that our quiet town has to become known for all this fictional violence,” says hotelier Peter Schonstrom, whose Anno 1793 Sekelgården, built into a medieval tannery, features in two Wallander books.

“But I am not complaining. It certainly brings in business.” His hotel offers, without fanfare, a Wallander suite.

Tourist officials say thousands of ­visitors are drawn to the town — at the centre of the largely rural Skane region where locals are said to speak Swedish with a Danish accent — every year, mostly because of Wallander.

Germans and Poles come on the regular­ ferry services across the Baltic. Others from further afield — and Japanese Mankel fans are among the most enthusiastic — fly to Copenhagen and cross by train across the Kattegat sea arm to nearby Malmo.

Are the locals bothered by the town’s criminal reputation? “Not at all,” says Andreas, an assistant in the bookshop — which stocks, but discreetly, most of the Wallander novels in German and English, as well as Swedish.

“It gives a bit of spice to life around here.”

The Ystad police, in their familiar dark-blue uniforms and folding caps, are happy with their fame, posing willingly for snap-happy tourists.

“We love Wallander,” says Ewa-Gun Westford, spokesperson for the 120-strong­ local force. “In fact, we named our canteen the Café Wallander. But of course, life here is nothing like the books,” she adds.

“Since 2009, there have been two murders — one in a family row and another when some card players got into a fight. Most of what we have to handle are everyday things like burglary and theft, and we do have a bit of drugs too.”

Mankel, who has a house outside town but lives mostly in Mozambique where he runs a theatre company, placed Wallander’s home in the early novels at Mariagatan 10, a two-floor apartment block in an eastern suburb.

Despite the worldwide fame of ­Ystad, there is little sign of any local effort to cash in on the Wallander name — not a Wallander T-shirt, tea towel or baseball cap in sight, nor, beyond the police station, a Wallander café or bar.

But “to meet demand from our visitors­” the tourist office issues a detailed small guide to the Wallander sites, and runs an hour-long tour twice a week on an ancient, red fire engine.

“Making money out of Inspector Kurt?” sniffs a shopkeeper. “That would be cheap.” — Reuters.

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