Ystad, SWEDEN — It’s barely dawn over the Baltic Sea and the morning light brings into view my first crime scene. On this stretch of beach, two tortured, but nicely attired corpses drifted lifelessly to shore, ironically on a lifeboat.
Before breakfast, I’ve tramped up the Hammars Backar hills of Ystad to the spot where a taxi driver was stabbed to death and I’ve wandered through the woods in the Hagestad Nature Reserve. Stunted gnarled oak and shady pine trees confirm what a serial killer already figured out: this is indeed a very tidy spot to hide three bodies. By lunchtime, I’m at the edge of a vast rapeseed field. Here a young woman drenched in gasoline lit herself on fire.
While in reality Sweden is a rather peaceable nation, with a homicide rate of only one per 100,000 residents, in crime novels it’s a bleak and violent place.
The Stieg Larsson trilogy that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a lead character who is violently raped, then tortures her attacker with crude carvings on his body and do-gooders get gunned down in their Stockholm apartment. But that’s nothing compared to what goes down in Ystad, a seaside town of 17,000 perched on the southernmost tip of Sweden. In the fictional world of detective Kurt Wallander – the literary creation of bestselling author Henning Mankell – Ystad has a murder rate that would make Mexico seem like, well, Sweden.
The dark world inhabited by Wallander is big business here in Ystad. Mankell’s first book, Faceless Killers, came out in 1991 and there have been at least five actors, including Brit Kenneth Branagh, who have portrayed the whiskey-drinking and opera-loving detective in various television series. Twenty-five million copies of Kurt Wallander books have sold worldwide and the number of visitors coming to Ystad has risen every year since 2002.
Ystad, as a result, has become one of the country’s major film production centres with the various Wallander productionsand other Swedish films are produced, filmed and even edited here. The interior shots of Wallander’s apartment and the always-hectic police stations are real sets where filming takes place; when the actors are gone, visitors can wander through and sit in Wallander’s chair to gaze at paintings of grouse or pick up foam body parts.
But Ystad is more than the sum of its body parts.
Wallander is always contemplating and Ystad is the place to do that. There is a serenity here, despite the various gruesome murders detailed by Mankell who relishes impaling, scalping and dismembering his victims and then placing the corpses in bucolic settings like sandy beaches and pastoral picnic sites.
Take away the horrors from the pages of a book and the reality is a landscape where the criminal activity in a work of fiction is so compelling because it is so unlikely.
Peace is a place where bodies appear but leave no trace behind after the final chapter.
Spring and early fall are the best times to visit southern Sweden and the temperatures are similar to Vancouver. In April, daytime highs are on average 10 degrees and 3 degrees at night.
The 109-room Ystad Saltsjobad hotel on the outskirts of town is situated right on the sandy beachfront on the Baltic Sea. A plank stretching far into the ocean is a holdout from the 19th century when bathing first became popular and used as a divider between men and women.
Ales Stenar, Sweden’s Stonehenge, is a megalithic ship of stones above a small fishing village overlooking the sea. There are 59 stones all together each weighing as much as two tonnes. Why it’s there and how long it’s been there, dates range from the Viking era to the 1500s, is a mystery befitting its own novel.
At Wallander’s favourite cafe, the Fridolfs Konditori, the herring sandwich is exactly what the detective would have ordered but a better bet is the Wallander pastry, a teeth-jarringly sweet cake with blue marzipan glaze the same shade as the Swedish police uniform.