Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing
A creepy Swedish whodunit that explores globalism, the results of youthful revolutionary fervor and the legacies of capitalism and colonialism
To many of us, Sweden is known for massages, meatballs, a lovely Christmas pageant tradition and, of course, Ikea. Now, however, when a certain segment of the American reading population thinks of Sweden, they (fine, we) imagine murder. Ironically, Sweden — and the Scandinavian countries in general — actually have an extraordinarily low crime rate. But it is cold and dark much of the year, with a long tradition of epic — and epically violent — myths and sagas. Maybe that’s why so many of Sweden’s most popular and translated writers are those whose subjects are the most grisly and creepy of crimes. One such crime writer, Henning Mankell, is known for his very well-reviewed Kurt Wallander mysteries, but his latest stand-alone work features a sleuth who is not actually a professional crime-solver, but one of the best sorts of concerned amateurs. Birgitta Roslin, the heroine of The Man From Beijing, is a judge. She’s temporarily flagged from her magisterial duties by high blood pressure, seemingly brought on by a genteel mid-life crisis: her marriage has lost its passion, and she fears she’s left behind the leftist political ideals of her 1960s student days. When a horrible massacre occurs in HesjÃ¶vallen, a remote country hamlet, Roslin discovers both a familial connection to the case, as well as way to depart from the all-too-familiar routines of her daily life in the big city. Following Roslin’s path to the perpetrator of this shocking crime would be enough for quite a lively and compelling mystery. Mankell complicates matters, however, jumping from Roslin’s POV to both present day and nineteenth century China. In the process, the story goes from a relatively straightforward (if rather creepy) whodunit, to an exploration of globalism, the results of youthful revolutionary fervor and the legacies of capitalism and colonialism. The result could — perhaps even should — be preachy, or at least slightly didactic, but Mankell’s careful prose and cool-as-a-herring tone never allow for shrillness or political proselytizing. Instead, the answer, when it comes, is both tragic and unsettling.