At the age of 62, Henning Mankell recently bought a pair of ice skates for the first time since he was a young boy growing up in northern Sweden. The occasion: a winter blizzard that virtually isolated his northern residence. The temporary loss of telephone service might concern others, but for Mankell, it was bliss to be suddenly transported back to the natural quietude of his youth.
In his latest mystery, The Man from Beijing, the best-selling author of Swedish crime fiction revisits his past in a different way. His heroine, Birgitta Roslin, is a college radical turned principled judge who finds herself swept up in worldwide intrigue. Mankell’s father had been a judge as well, in the tiny hamlet of Sveg. “It is the first time I have used a judge as a character in a book,” Mankell says by phone from Sweden.
The Man from Beijing represents another first—it’s also Mankell’s first hardcover release from Random House’s Knopf imprint, after a string of successful paperbacks featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander.
“Mankell has become an iconic brand for Vintage Crime/Black Lizard with paperback sales in excess of half a million copies,” says Paul Bogaards, Knopf’s executive director of publicity. “The Man from Beijing was actually the first hardcover on offer to us at Knopf. Of course, we immediately leapt at the chance to publish Mankell here.”
Mankell’s new suspense novel must have been especially appealing to Knopf after the blockbuster success of Stieg Larsson, the late Swedish crime writer whose Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) has struck publishing gold in the U.S. But, as Bogaards notes, deconstructing the mania for Nordic crime fiction leads to a chicken-or-the-egg question about who launched the trend.
“I think it’s important to note that Mankell is very much a pioneer in the genre and that much of our fascination with Swedish crime fiction turns on his work,” Bogaards says. “Mankell preceded Larsson—indeed, he seeded interest for American readers—and Larsson’s success in the States and around the world is a tribute to Mankell’s iconic detective, Wallander.”
No matter who came first, it’s indisputable, as Bogaards notes, that Mankell “really is one of the best crime novelists at work today,” and this talent is on display in his new standalone suspense novel.
The Man from Beijing opens in January 2006 with a gruesome discovery: 19 residents of the remote Swedish village of Hesjovallen, most of them members of the Andren family, have been brutally and inexplicably massacred. Judge Roslin, whose mother grew up in the village, finds a diary kept by Jan Andren, an ancestor who describes his immigration to America and his role as a foreman during the construction of the transcontinental railway.
Cut to 1863. Three Chinese brothers, San, Wu and Guo Si, flee their village for America, only to be forced into virtual slavery to build that selfsame railway. Ultimately, San repatriates to China, where he marries and bears children, including a son who would become a leader of the Communist Party.
Back in Hesjovallen, Roslin finds a single red ribbon at the crime scene that leads her to suspect that the killer was a lone Chinese man who passed through town on that deadly night. When she follows her suspicions to Beijing, the tables turn as Roslin is tracked and detained as a person of interest by the Chinese. Her amateur investigation leads her to Hong, a committed Maoist who acts as her escort in Beijing, and ultimately to Hong’s brother Ya Ru, an ultra-wealthy developer with big plans for Africa.
Mankell has lived “one foot in snow, one foot in sand” since 1986, when he became director of Teatro Avenida in the Mozambican capital of Maputo. He traces the novel’s origin to a news story 10 years ago about Chinese construction foremen mistreating African workers while building a new Chinese-funded government building in Maputo.
“When I heard about that, I started to really reflect on the idea of China in Africa,” Mankell says. The Man from Beijing explores the irony that China, once the victim of colonialism, now seems intent on colonial expansion.
“China has one enormous domestic problem, and that is what to do with all of the hundreds of millions of peasants that they really do not use. I read just the other day that China has rented land in Kenya to move some one million peasants to Africa. What I try to say in this book is, we have to be very careful about what is happening in Africa. There is a risk that something bad is happening now.”
Mankell, who has written many of his Swedish-set novels, including most of the Wallander series, while residing in Mozambique, likes the perspective that Africa affords his fiction.
“I believe in distance,” he says. “As a painter stands very close as he’s painting, occasionally he steps backward to have a look and then he goes closer and continues to paint. I believe this distance I have to Europe has made me a better European in a way. When you stand at a distance, you can see things more clearly than if you do not have that distance.”
He has watched with equal clarity the boom in Nordic mysteries, which extends beyond his work and the Larsson books to Karin Fossum’s award-winning The Indian Bride, Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series and a host of others.
“You remember 30 years ago there was a Swedish tennis player named Bjorn Borg? We never had had a really good tennis player before that, but after him, there came a hell of a lot of really good tennis players: Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, etc.,” Mankell says. “I believe that nothing succeeds like success.”
Mankell’s publisher is betting he’s right on target with that assessment and plans to ride the wave as long as it lasts. A second Knopf hardcover, The Troubled Man, is already in the works, says Bogaards, who predicts significant readership gains for Mankell as the fascination with Nordic noir continues.
Jay MacDonald writes from snow-free Florida.