Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Man from Beijing
by Henning Mankell

In the world of crime fiction, sometimes it seems as if the only thing anyone’s talking about is Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Those three novels -- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (due out in the States next month) -- comprise one of the finest series of crime thrillers ever written. In sparse, precise prose, Larsson paints vivid characters, plots nail-biting action and leaves readers wanting what every writer hopes his readers will want: more.

But as good as Mr. Larsson’s books are, they’re not the only game in Stockholm. Henning Mankell, well-known for his Kurt Wallander series of mysteries, has just published a real blockbuster read, The Man from Beijing (Knopf). Set in more or less the same world as Larsson’s series -- Sweden -- this standalone work is a sprawling tale of desperation, crime, revenge, sibling rivalry and relentless investigation. Its plot begins in present-day Sweden, then jumps back to America in the mid-1800s, then on to today’s China, and finally back to Sweden. No single-location mystery for Mankell; by opening up his plot to many nations and time periods, the author is able to pack his story with every manner of conflict, from human to cultural to historical.

Gripping in every way, The Man from Beijing starts off with the slaughter of 19 people in the small Swedish hamlet of Hesjövallen. Naturally, no one saw anything, and the clues are all but nonexistent. There are only a few people left alive in that little town, and they apparently know nothing. The highly detailed police-procedural part of this book happens here, as investigators rip the scene of the crime apart to find anything that might be considered a lead. All anyone can find is a red ribbon.

But then the story shifts location and focus. Enter Birgitta Roslin, an aging, big-city judge who learns she has an interesting connection to the murders. Like us, she’s drawn to it. The investigators do their best to rebuff her, but by that time the case has jumped from the news to her heart. She can’t let it go -- and that’s a good thing, because neither can we.

In the parallel universe of this tale, we then meet three poor Chinese brothers who lived 150 years ago. In their darkest hour, they’re taken -- slave-like -- to America to work on building the young nation’s first transcontinental railroad. They aren’t the only foreigners on the scene. There’s also one particular Swede, who turns out to be a hell of an evil, bigoted taskmaster.

Meanwhile, back in the present, China is preparing to host the 2010 Olympics. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of politicking, a lot of jockeying for power, for money, for control. And at the center of it all, businessmen whose enterprises aren’t totally legit. While they wrestle for China’s present, they also fight to determine the trajectory of its future, looking for ways to both lower China’s population and spread its political force abroad. They look to Mozambique, where a million Chinese citizens can work the land and build a new destiny for both countries.

How does all of this fit together? To call the story line intricate would only begin to scratch the surface. Mankell treads lightly, for the most part, sketching bits of plot and character in such a way that he seems to provide answers but also manages to ask many more questions. Birgitta Roslin is the most complex player of all, willing to put everything on the line for the purest of motives. A judge by day, she has both health and marital problems. They’re not remarkable, but they are what you might expect -- and this makes her someone with whom we can easily identify. In the midst of such massively surprising revelations about her family and this case that’s drawn her in, her mundane problems are almost a welcome relief to her and to us.

Mankell’s style -- as translated by Laurie Thompson -- is just as spare and direct as Stieg Larsson’s. In a way, Mankell’s sentences straddle two worlds: he stands off a bit from much of the action, offering almost chilly, matter-of-fact descriptions, yet manages at the same time to lodge himself deeply in the minds of his characters. It’s as if he’s stripped out layers of emotion to leave us with the stark reality of the evidence and the equally stark motivations that drive his characters. The result is a fascinating blend of styles that keeps the plot tense and the revelations startling. For so many reasons, The Man from Beijing is a brilliant work that’s both challenging and extraordinarily satisfying.

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