The Man from Beijing

The first presence we encounter in Henning Mankell’s new novel, The Man from Beijing, is not human but animal. A starving wolf that has crossed from Norway into Sweden pauses at the edge of a forest to survey an isolated village. “There are people living in the houses but no smoke rising from the chimneys. His sharp ears can’t detect the slightest sound.” The wolf does, however, smell blood. And he quickly finds something to eat. Something human.  

The next moment we are in a hotel, observing a photographer as he wakes from a dream of a picture he once took. “He lay motionless in bed and felt the image returning slowly, as if the negative of his dream were sending a copy up into his conscious mind… a man sitting on an old iron bed, with a hunting rifle hanging on the wall….” The photographer, who studies deserted and dwindling villages, presently approaches the settlement visited earlier by the wolf. We will lose sight of both these visitors, man and beast, but they will remain, dreamlike, at the edge of our vision as this extraordinary novel expands to become not only a crime story but also a gripping historical drama and political thriller. 

Mankell, a supremely unpretentious writer who is best known for his fine Inspector Kurt Wallender series, disorients us with this near-mythical overture even as he plants us firmly in the frozen land. Fascinated by Mankell’s vision from the first paragraph, we are simultaneously befogged by it. The police, when they arrive, are similarly affected. “It was as if a blood-laden hurricane had stormed through the village,” the female officer in charge observes, “…as if she were viewing the dead disfigured bodies through a telescope….”

The crime is operatic in scale and setting, yet Mankell maintains the hypnotic effect of his narrative with plain language and with details that reveal the everyday pain of ordinary lives. Entering one solitary victim’s house, for instance, a police officer notes that it is “… neat and tidy. On one wall were photographs of her dead husband and the two children who didn’t care about her.”

A crime story is what we expect, of course, and that is what we get at first. As news of the village killings breaks, a provincial judge realizes that her dead mother shares a past with one of the murdered couples. “I can see the surface,” Birgitta Roslin thinks as she peruses neglected family documents, “…thin threads intertwining with one another. But what lay behind it all?” She discovers a family connection to the U.S. in the 19th century. More chilling, however, is the moment when Birgitta stumbles on a contemporary newspaper report of similar killings in Nevada. Propelled by a mixture of curiosity and fear, she travels to the site of the Swedish murders. We sense the novel shunting onto a predictable track.

Not quite, however. Clues surface, certainly, but Mankell is so sly — with one clue in particular — that we are denied any easy, linear progress. Instead we are briefly stranded with Birgitta in a modern hotel in a gloomy town adjacent to the crime scene, where a Chinese restaurant provides both color and a whiff of intrigue. When she is permitted to enter the house of the dead couple to whom she may be related, Birgitta realizes that “People have left and taken all noise with them” while leaving her another “thin thread” of connection to follow. She picks it up and Mankell spins us around again, catapulting us back to China in 1863, where three near-starving brothers, fleeing a murderous overlord, make their way to the coast. There is said to be work in Canton and ships that sail to America. On the second day of their trek, the brothers reach “a crossroads where three human heads were mounted on bamboo poles that had been driven into the ground,” but greater horrors await them in Canton and later in the U.S., where the new railroad devours workers and spawns sadists.

“On March 9, 1864,” we read, “Guo Si and San started hacking away the mountain blocking the railway line that would eventually span the whole American continent.” Mankell’s dry, economical style powerfully conveys the brutality and the desperation of America’s expansion. In winter, cold lies on the land “like a blanket of iron,” and in summer San and his remaining brother are “hoisted up in the baskets of death” armed with nitroglycerine sticks “to open reluctant chunks of the mountain.”

San, the surviving brother, finally returns to China where he becomes the trusted servant of Swedish missionaries and begins to write down his experiences. Here again, Mankell cunningly exposes even these incidental characters, evangelizing Swedes who perplex the Chinese because “They had nothing to sell, and there was nothing they wanted to buy. They simply stood there and spoke in bad Chinese about a God who treated all human beings as equals.”

The final third of the novel returns us to the present and to Birgitta’s solitary search for the truth behind the village killings. That search leads to China and briefly to West Africa as Mankell expertly choreographs his most daring — and arguably his most political — plot to date, one that involves China’s overseas expansion, its growing domestic unrest, and the seismic tensions within that country’s ruling Communist party.

“Big changes do not take place on the battlefield,” a Chinese analyst observes as he prepares to address a secret conference of the country’s rulers, “They happen behind locked doors.” Mankell takes us behind those doors, allowing us a rare — and utterly convincing — insight into China’s political history and the preoccupations of its ruling elite. Yet the tension of the murder mystery never slackens, and the links connecting the immediate crime to its remote origins are deftly, but never intrusively, established.  

At its core, The Man from Beijing is a classic revenge tale whose central character could have stepped out of Shakespeare, or even Sophocles, so great is his ambition and his reach. That wonderfully sinister presence lurks behind every tight bend that the novel takes, yet it is the dull provincial judge who holds our main attention and, of course, our sympathy. “She suddenly felt old,” Birgitta reflects when she finds herself in Beijing. “… [T]here was still a bit to go, then the path would peter out and she would be consumed by darkness.” In the meantime, Birgitta wishes only to revive her atrophied marriage and to write a winning song for the tacky Eurovision Song Contest; predictable ambitions for a typically understated Mankell character. Instead she is lured onto alien, lethal terrain and subtly transformed into one of Mankell’s most convincing crime novel heroines.