By Maureen Corrigan
Saturday, April 10, 2010; C08
THE MAN FROM BEIJING
By Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson
Knopf. 367 pp. $25.95
It may not be flawless, but Henning Mankell's "The Man From Beijing" is a great mystery that belongs in the company of other knockout masterpieces of moral complexity and atmosphere like Dorothy Sayers's "The Nine Tailors," Robert Goddard's "Beyond Recall," Barbara Vine's "A Dark-Adapted Eye" and Mankell's own brilliant 2002 gloomfest, "One Step Behind." The new novel's ambitious plotting alone should be dissected and taught in MFA programs where, these days, the craft of storytelling seems to rank far below the poetics of the acknowledgements page in terms of literary value.
Mankell's latest tale roams from a remote Swedish village to the American West of the 19th century, where Chinese indentured servants hack through mountains to clear the way for the transcontinental railroad. In between are stops in modern-day Beijing and London, as well as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The thread that connects these disparate narratives is drenched in the blood of historical crimes and baroque retribution.
Mankell's opening scenes tease the reader with the anticipation of Something Ghastly lurking amid all that pristine Swedish snow. In deep midwinter, a famished wolf approaches the silent hamlet of Hesjovallen. He sniffs blood in the air and finds a carcass: "Having pulled off a leather shoe, he starts gnawing away at an ankle." Next to stumble into the scene is a photographer on assignment, taking pictures of depopulated Swedish villages. What he finds in Hesjovallen sends him running back to his car and then careening straight into a truck. The dying photographer's last words are: "The village. Hesjovallen." When police arrive, they discover that almost the entire burg plus its dogs -- 19 people in total -- have been hacked to death, some beheaded.
But that's only the awful overture; the main narrative hasn't begun yet. As police struggle to make sense of the carnage, a district judge named Birgitta Roslin reads of the crime and recalls that her mother, now deceased, lived in that village, where she was raised by foster parents. Birgitta has time to brood over the horror: She's been ordered to take a medical leave from her job because of exhaustion. And as the Swedes (at least in literature and cinema) seem to relish doing, Birgitta has plummeted into a mid-life despair: Her marriage to a train conductor has atrophied, wine collecting has supplanted her youthful commitment to radical politics, and her belief in the social utility of her work as a judge has all but withered away. As Birgitta wonders to herself in a particularly low moment: "Was she a servant of the law, or of indifference?"
Motivated by her mandatory leave of absence from work and her cosmic discontent, Birgitta takes the quest for justice into her own hands and investigates the mass murders in Hesjovallen. Mankell evocatively chronicles Birgitta's twin journeys: Her internal crisis melds with her search for answers to the bizarre bloodbath that has tainted her extended family. Like some aging Nancy Drew, Birgitta zooms off alone in her roadster. When she arrives at the village, she uses her judge's credentials to gain entry to her mother's childhood home and sift for clues. Eventually, she unearths an old diary that, along with a red silk ribbon found near the village, leads her to Beijing, where her part in this intricate mystery temporarily trails off and another entirely different storyline picks up.
Mankell has an occasional weakness for wedging undigested political commentary into his suspense stories. Given their generic fascination with a world gone wrong, mysteries and suspense novels naturally function as vehicles for social and political criticism, but Mankell halts the narrative completely and inserts a 10-page speech about China's communist past and its present-day colonialist aspirations in Africa. The wisdom of that golden oldie of a creative-writing adage "Show, don't tell!" is affirmed anew by this stultifying lecture.
Happily, all speeches must eventually end. When the lecturer vacates the podium, the narrative rouses itself back into sleek motion and, ultimately, back to Birgitta and the origins of the Hesjovallen horror. "The Man From Beijing" is a brilliant tale of suspense and substance that dedicated mystery readers will want to savor.
Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.