Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


THE MAN FROM BEIJING by Henning Mankell: Book Review

In a major departure from his Inspector Kurt Wallender series, Henning Mankell takes us to four continents in this thriller–Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America.  So skillfully does he write, it seems as if Mankell has actually been to all of the above places at the times the events he’s writing about occur, although that’s obviously impossible; the first Chinese segment and the North American segment take place three quarters of a century before Mankell was born.

The Man from Beijing begins with the massacre of eighteen elderly people and one child in a tiny village in Sweden.  A photographer is the first person to happen on the scene.  Frightened and stunned he drives off and crashes his car, but before he dies he manages to impart the news of the killings.  The police arrive in the village, of course, and they and everyone in the country are appalled and bewildered by the carnage. Who and why are the questions on everyone’s lips.

Birgitta Roslin is a judge in a city far from Hesjovallen where the killings took place.  Although she, like everyone else, is horrified when she hears about the murders, she would seem to have no personal ties to the village.  But the next day, when she reads the names of the victims, she is reminded that her late mother had lived in Hesjovallen and realizes that two of the people killed were her mother’s foster parents.  She contacts the police and makes a visit to the town, scarcely aware of why she is doing so.

Once there, Roslin gets a cool reception from the local police who are overwhelmed investigating the biggest bloodbath in modern Sweden. At night in a nearby hotel, unable to sleep, Roslin breaks into the cottage where her mother lived and takes a diary from one of the drawers.  The diary was written by a man she assumes to be a relative of the Andren family who took her mother in.  “JA” had emigrated to the United States from Sweden in the 1860s and had become a foreman for one of the railroad companies engaged in building the tracks for the trains that crossed the continent.  His diary shows JA to be a tough, brutal overseer, bigoted against the freed slaves, American Indians, Irish immigrants, and Chinese indentured servants who are laying the tracks.  And it’s the Chinese/Swedish connection that forms the plot of The Man from Beijing.

In each section of the book, whether it takes place in Sweden, the United States, China, or Mozambique, Mankell makes the reader feel what it’s like to be there. It takes a while for the connections between these various points to appear, and I must confess that not everything is made clear.

I do have some “nitpicking” with this novel.  The reader can understand the motive for the crimes, but I didn’t find the motive as convincing as I would have liked.  I also felt that Birgitta Roslin was a bit too naive, too passive for a woman with her life experiences.  SPOILER ALERT: And I thought the way her life was saved was not believable.

These caveats aside, The Man from Beijing is a page-turner in the best sense.  It has a terrific plot, believable characters, and a sense that many of the political beliefs that Roslin and other characters have come straight from Mankell’s heart.  Like every other book by this author, it’s a mystery worthy of your time.

You can read more about Henning Mankell at his web site.

Leave a Reply