The Man From Beijing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am

The Man From Beijing
by Henning Mankell
Harvill Secker HK$187

It's a chilling and well-constructed opening scene. Scampering through the snow, a hungry wolf crosses from Norway into northern Sweden. Then, following the scent of freshly butchered meat, the canine finds a feast of 19 dead bodies in the deadly silent hamlet of Hesj?vallen.

The body-count hits 20 when a photographer who stumbles on this blood-drenched crime scene suffers a fatal heart attack before the police move in. Hampered by budget cuts and a bureaucratic mindset, they make little headway in this case.

To find the culprit, or culprits, behind this atrocity, Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell - best known for his acclaimed and best-selling Detective Wallander series - has brought us a new sleuth, a fiftysomething judge called Birgitta Roslin, who suffers from high blood pressure and is unhappily married to a railway ticket collector.

The problem with Roslin is that she's no Wallander. Unlike the paunchy maverick who works out of Ystad Police Station, Roslin is a little too one-dimensional to identify with, despite her secret yearning to write Sweden's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Thankfully for the sake of the convoluted plot, she's driven by a strong quest for the truth, a quest that takes her to Beijing to follow a lead that she found in a crummy hotel not far from where the bodies in Chapter One were found.

In a penthouse overlooking central Beijing, we are introduced to the character of the title. Ya Ru is a weakly characterised Bond villain, a ruthless control-freak scumbag hell-bent on subverting the ideals of the Communist Party to his own ends. Head of a business empire and a high-level political fixer, Ya Ru is presented as a symbol of how the revolution is today going to the dogs.

This lengthy Beijing detour also allows left-winger Mankell to give us a few history lessons on the story of the People's Republic, and to stick it to the rapacious capitalists. And he does this mostly through the voice of Roslin, who, before she got all respectable and bourgeois, was a Maoist student activist during Europe's tumultuous and radicalised 1960s.

The author, late in life, has discovered China. But Mankell is out of his depth as a China-watcher. The more preachy he gets, and the more statements of the obvious he delivers, the more those familiar with his work will hanker for his natural habitat, Sk?ne, and for his most famous character.

The Man From Beijing's scope is vast, and somewhat overly ambitious. But where it works, it works very well indeed. A recurring theme in Mankell's oeuvre is the power of misdeeds committed in the distant past to haunt and shape the present, and this is again explored here to great effect.

Events that took place in Nevada over a century ago during the construction of a transcontinental railroad, using exploited Chinese labour, light the slow-burning fuse of a bomb that explodes in rural Sweden in January 2006.

Despite having rather too many unbelievable plot twists, The Man From Beijing is an enjoyable page-turner. It's also a forgivable indulgence from a great storyteller.