The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

Before Stieg Larsson and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there was Henning Mankell, the long-reigning Swedish king of crime fiction with his internationally popular series of detective novels featuring the world-weary policeman, Kurt Wallander. With The Man From Beijing, Mankell has reclaimed his right to the summit.

The first volume of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Tattoo, was a revelation and, to nearly everyone’s surprise but the author’s — and that only because he’d died in 2004 — the book was a breakthrough international bestseller. A Swedish-subtitle film of the same name is opening in the USA as I write, and an American production in English may not be far behind. But the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, though engrossing, was disappointing by comparison. (See my earlier review in this blog.)

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell ★★★★★ 

The Man From Beijing was anything but disappointing. I had devoured every one of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels, catching them as soon as they appeared in English. Beijing showcases the same insightful treatment of the “new” multicultural Sweden, the same fine understanding of how cultures clash and confuse, and the same wholly believable characters caught up in a horrific sequence of events that skirts the limits of the possible but never quite crosses over the line.

Henning Mankell’s protagonist in The Man From Beijing is Birgitta Roslin, a district court judge in a small Swedish city. In the midst of marital conflict and the psychic weight of aging — she’s in her mid-fifties — Roslin finds herself caught up in the second-worst murder incident in Sweden’s history (after the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, a real-life event that took place in 1986). Nineteen people, all but one of them retired to live out the few remaining years of their lives in a tiny, isolated northern village, are brutally murdered. Roslin’s passion for the truth leads her to undertake an independent investigation during time off from her work, since the police in charge of the case seem to be ignoring what she is convinced are important clues. That investigation eventually leads her into perilous circumstances in China.

Beautifully constructed and suspenseful

The story line in Beijing is beautifully constructed, maintaining suspense until the book’s climax very near the end. As a murder mystery alone, this novel is worth its weight in electrons — yes, I read it on my Kindle — but I was equally gripped by Mankell’s astute depiction of leadership-level politics in China today and by the convincing way he portrays the standard Chinese defense of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Mankell knows whereof he speaks when his novels venture into Africa. For the past 25 years, he has been the director of a theater in Mozambique and divides his time between Sweden and East Africa. It’s truly refreshing to read stories by a writer who cares not only about his characters but also about the state of the world.

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