YSTAD, Sweden (Reuters) - “This is a very peaceful place,” says police inspector Charlotte Lindh as families head flock past toward an open-air flea market on a bright Saturday morning. “I am happy I can bring up my children up 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.
The bookshop just off the square, Stortorget, is crowded as are the cafe terraces around it with waiters threading through the tables balancing trays with coffees and pre-lunch drinks.
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 and “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 autumn.
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 master-mind wrecking the world economy in an intricate international operation to be sparked from an ATM machine.
In one of the films, a suicide bomber seizes the minister of defense on the square and in another a hostage-taker blows himself up there when he is cornered by Wallander and his team of male and female detectives.
In leisure moments, the inspector frequents the bookshop and the cafes. But a street away he finds the murdered body of a police colleague and just outside the square the crooked local member of parliament is shot dead despite a heavy police guard.
“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 Sekel Garden,” 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 center 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.
“Our beaches are great” — and indeed they are — “but I think only the Norwegians come for them,” says a town guide. There are nearby pre-historic sites and Scandinavia’s oldest medieval fortress, which also figure in Mankel’s novels.
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 — to Wallander film fans — 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 Cafe 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 theater company, placed Wallander’s home in the early novels at Mariagatan 10, a two-floor ochre-painted apartment bloc in an eastern suburb.
As a visitor stops to take a photograph of the building which featured in many of the Swedish films, a police car appears and the driver, with a grin, slows down so he can be in the picture. Then, waving, he moves off.
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 cafe 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.”
Reporting by Robert Evans, editing by Paul Casciato