#5 Henning Mankell / The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Vintage, 2011 [2008]). A gripping crime novel spanning a hundred years and four continents. Arguably a little over-ambitious, but a highly enjoyable read nonetheless 4 stars

Opening sentence: I, Birgitta Roslin, do solomnly declare that I shall endevour, to the best of my knowledge and in accordance with my conscience, to pass judgement without fear or favour, be the accused rich or poor, and according to the laws and statutes of Sweden…

My Easter treat was a copy of Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. Like many others, I’ve been a Wallander fan for many years, but have come to enjoy Mankell’s standalone novels as well, and to admire his continued enthusiasm for writing and tackling big subjects when he could so easily be resting on his laurels.

The novel opens with the discovery of a brutal massacre in the remote northern hamlet of Hesjövallen that shocks the whole of Sweden. The first few pages are also liable to shock even a seasoned crime reader. As the Sunday Times quote on the back of the novel so accurately observes: ‘it is hard to think of a crime novel with a more grisly opening’. Snacking is not to be recommended for the first 50 pages.

After reading a newspaper report, Judge Birgitta Roslin realises that she has a family connection to two of the victims, and becomes increasingly involved in unravelling this highly unusual case, which has its beginnings in the harsh histories of nineteenth-century migration and colonial oppression. Taking Roslin and the reader on a sweeping set of individual, historical, political and geographical journeys, The Man from Beijing is both a detective novel and political thriller, featuring an eclectic range of characters from all over the world.

For this reader, one of the novel’s strongest points was the characterisation of Roslin and the policewoman Vivi Sundberg (thank you Mankell for creating these complex, interesting, older women!). The plot was also gripping, but perhaps overly ambitious in places, with different sections located in 2006 Sweden, 1860s China and America, as well as present-day China and Africa. Mankell is to be applauded for the scope of the history that he tries to show us, his exploration of the complex relations between Europe, America and China, and his illumination of developing economic ties between China and Africa, but towards the end of the novel I felt that these political strands were in danger of overshadowing the crime narrative.

That having been said, the novel was still an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking read. And it’s always good to see authors pushing the boundaries of the crime novel in interesting ways.

An extract from the novel is available here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Man from Beijing a hearty 4 stars.

5 thoughts on “#5 Henning Mankell / The Man from Beijing

  1. I enjoyed this book a lot. Granted, it was very ambitious in geographical locations and time periods. However, it made me think a lot about many countries’ development and inter-relationships in today’s world. And I am someone who read newspapers and Internet news every day and follows current events. But it still pushed the envelope and brought up new issues to ponder.
    Not only did I like the two Swedish women characters mentioned above, but I was intrigued by the Chinese woman character featured in much of the book … don’t remember her name.

    • Thanks, Kathy. Yes, the global reach of the novel was impressive, especially the attempt to examine the West’s relationship with China. I’ve just checked that character’s name: it’s Hong Qiu.

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  3. Yes, I was very interested in the West’s relationship with China, but also developments within China itself. Is private industry going so far that it reaches criminal doings? Does it go across the line to greed and criminal act for money? Are there really people like the Chinese man who is unethical and greedy in the extreme? What is China’s relationship with Africa? Is everything, every deal done fairly with the African people paid well and treated decently, as equals? These are issues Hanning Mankell cares about and worries about. He worries about China’s relationship with Africa. The book pushed me on pondering this seriously. Wish there were a sequel.

    • This is one of the things I really like about Mankell as a writer: you can tell that he’s a ‘global’ citizen and a very concerned and engaged citizen at that. Lots of very interesting questions raised, as you say.

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