Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 560 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Despite liking Scandinavian crime novels, I’ve never quite got around to reading anything by Henning Mankell, arguably the grand master of the genre. I’ve been reluctant to read his Inspector Wallander mysteries because there are 11 books in the series, a major commitment for someone like me who would want to read them all in the correct order.
But The Man From Beijing is a stand-alone book, so there was no need to worry about over-committing myself. As it turns out, it was an entertaining read, and one that was not terribly demanding, but I’m not sure that it’s encouraged me to go down the Wallander route — although I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise.
The story starts off with a real show-stopper: nineteen people, all related, are slaughtered in a sleepy Swedish village in the dead of winter. It is Sweden’s biggest mass murder. The media are crawling all over it, but the police don’t have a clue as to who might have committed it. Was it a lunatic gone mad with a machete? Or a thoroughly planned exercise by a team of killers? What, exactly, was the motive?
But The Man From Beijing is not a police procedural. The story is told largely through the eyes of Birgitta Roslin, a perfectly nice middle-aged judge from Helsingborg, who is distantly related to a couple of the victims. In her working life Birgitta has seen and done it all (her experiences, related as back story, serve to highlight the dark underbelly of Swedish society). When she is signed off work with high blood pressure, she decides to fill her days investigating the mass murder — as you do.
She has a few run-ins with the detective in charge of the investigation — a bullish woman by the name of Vivi Sundberg — but on the whole it’s clear that Birgitta is miles ahead of the police in terms of finding leads and potential suspects. But how can she connect the red ribbon found at the scene with a nineteenth century diary? And who was the mysterious Chinese man who booked into a local hotel the night before the murder?
Just as Birgitta’s investigation begins to really take off, Mankell does something unexpected. He takes the story back to 1863, at a time when three Chinese brothers were press-ganged into working on the railroad that links the American east coast with the west. What does this have to do with the murder in Sweden more than a century later? Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
I think the major problem I had with this book was its structure. It morphs into a kind of political thriller, and the event which opens the book in such stunning style gets almost forgotten as Mankell builds up an extensive web of corruption across three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.
As you might expect from the title, a large chunk of the book is set in China. In fact, Birgitta, who wanted to join the Red Guard in her youth, visits the country on a spur-of-the-moment decision to continue her unofficial enquiries (the fact there is no mention of acquiring a travel visa was just one of many factual omissions that annoyed me while reading this book).
The China depicted here is modern and vibrant, but it is also deeply divided. Just as Mankell makes undisguised commentary about Sweden’s social problems through the criminal cases over which Birgitta must preside, in the Chinese parts of the novel he makes more undisguised commentary about a rampant economic system, Communism and corruption. Indeed, he ties them all together, and then throws in a semi-plausible plot about China wanting to “export” its poverty-stricken peasants to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in exchange for helping to develop those countries. (I rather suspect Mankell read Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think? as part of his research, because he regurgitates a lot of the facts that Leonard presents in his book, including the notion that China donates huge sums of money to African nations that have been turned down for loans by the International Monetary Fund.)
As a thriller, the story has a sufficiently menacing undertone to make one keep turning the pages. But as a crime novel it lacks punch, probably because the killer is clearly identified very early on in the book. Mankell then spends some 300-plus pages explaining how that killer came to do what he did.
On the whole, I enjoyed The Man From Beijing as a “holiday read” (I was travelling around Ireland at the time), but it’s a woolly book in need of some tight editing. It is easily 200 pages too long. Still, the saving grace is Birgitta, a convincing character with just the right touch of paranoia, to keep the story pedalling along.
12 thoughts on “‘The Man from Beijing’ by Henning Mankell”
I found lots to like about the Man from B, especially the 3 main woman characters, but focused it is not! I found the historical sections far too oversimplified. The Wallander books are very different, being more traditional police procedurals, and much more focused. They are heavily infuenced by Sjowall/Wahloo’s Martin Beck series if you’ve read those. One problem with the Wallander novels is the plots, which are often weak in the denouements, and also very dated owing to their frequently technological nature and the fact that the books took so long to be translated into English. However, the character of Wallander, his relationships with his family (father, ex-wife, daughter) over the series is very strong. Also the depiction of the police team and dynamics. The various TV series capture very little of these aspects of the books.
I applauded the notion of trying new things in Man From…even though I don’t think they all worked. But I get a bit tired of the same old same old when it comes to plots. Mankell’s lecturing annoys me though – it’s not the positions he takes (though I don’t often agree with them either) but the fact he does more commentary than incorporating the notions into the plot itself.
I bought the first 8 the Wallander novels on a whim one day several years ago as they were all out cheap as a set (as you know books aren’t often cheap in Oz and when they do they are rarely books I like the look of so when I saw them all for $25 I kind of “had” to buy them). So far I have read 2 of them and thought them OK – the first one not brilliant but decent, the 2nd one better. I must admit though I’ve not rushed to read the remainder.
Agree — the female characters in this book are very good, but the story lacks focus.
Interesting to hear your views on the Wallander series. I’ve read a couple of the Martin Beck books and enjoyed them. Maybe I should give him a go?
I’ll admit the bits about China in this book grated with me, especially since I’ve just been to China and witnessed the enormous change that country is undergoing. He presents quite an over-simplified take on the situation, but then I guess it is a political thriller/crime novel and it’s not supposed to be a book of record… and yet, it just seemed too black and white to me, and I wasn’t sure he painted the Chinese in a very good light. And the explanation for the killing just didn’t wash with me…
Getting 8 books for $25 is quite a bargain, Bernadette! I would have nabbed them too. I get the impression the books are good reads if you’re looking for something not too demanding…?
I think the Martin Beck series is superior to Wallander: better written, and with a much stronger authorial view. The novels are collectively called “the story of a crime” and are supposedly an indictment of post-war socialist Sweden. They are dated in some senses, and one does not (necessarily) agree with the authors’ political points, but the structure and intelligence of the novels goes a long way.
Mankell’s novels (which I read out of order as they were translated, with big gaps, not helping I’m sure) are stronger than Sjowell/Wahloo in their portrayal of the central detective and his preoccupations (though Martin Beck is interesting in this regard, he’s somewhat more insubstantial as a character). But the naievety of some of the plots (eg destroying the internet via a bank cash machine) really lets them down.
PS Not sure if you know, in view of some remarks in your review, that Mankell lives for half the year (or something like that) in Mozambique and ploughs all his book profits into projects there. So I suppose he must have first-hand knowledge of at least some aspects of the Chinese presence there. Agreed that visa omission is just the kind of error that annoys me!
have just read -Kennedy’s Brain- by Mankell, the story reminded me a little of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci in that the main character moves from Greece to Sweden to Australia to Spain to Mozambique to Greece and back to Mozambique. Again Mankell is trying to make a point about Aids in Africa, and how Africa has been “used” by western/powerful nations and more often abused than assisted. at times I felt I was being “lectured” but it is still a fascinating read. Loved the Wallander books and will probably read The Man from Beijing also.
That’s about right Kim…not terribly demanding but decent enough. That’s after two – heaven knows what I’d think after 8 though.
As for Mankell’s views, I become less and less interested in what he has to say. His ranting and behaviour over the ill-fated trip to Palestine was inane and ignorant – but I only know that because I have more first hand knowledge of that part of the world having visited several times and being in contact with people there on both sides of the wall – as you say with having visited China yourself you get a different picture than the one he paints. But I guess in the end it makes us think and discuss which is a good thing 🙂
We watched the first three DVDs of the Wallander series recently and, while they were interesting, a bonus documentary about him (more than the series actually) was probably more useful. He came across very much as an author with a political agenda and, whatever I might think about the agenda, I find I don’t much like fiction written from that point of view. We’ll watch more of the series, but I must admit the documentary put me off trying any of his books.
I think I might have seen that documentary… I quite like authors who use their money in “good” ways, by which I mean they share their wealth with people less well off, and I know he does a lot of charitable stuff for AIDS etc, but… It seemed to me, in reading this book, that he doesn’t like the Chinese at all because he painted most of them in a very sinister light. Those that came off looking good had very liberal left-wing political views. That aside, I did enjoy reading this novel, I just wouldn’t rush out and read anything else by him.
Thanks, Maxine. Yes, I saw a documentary about Mankell a year or so ago, and I quite like the fact he does a lot of work associated with AIDS charities in Africa. And maybe, because of what he’s seen while living there, he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the Chinese? He just seems to paint them all in such a sinister light…
Not heard of “Kennedy’s Brain” so I looked it up on Amazon. It actually sounds like something I’d enjoy.