The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell | Book review

Without Wallander to rein him in, Henning Mankell is in danger of losing his touch

Henning Mankell is pursued by demons. He is a radical, a man of causes and purpose, a born storyteller who uses his fabulous gifts to make us read about the worst sufferings, exploitations and crimes human flesh is heir to.

As an expert in demons, Mankell has produced one himself in the person of his famous Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, whose life and work he chronicled in a brilliant series of thrillers published between 1991 and 2004. At that point Mankell wanted us to move on. Last year in Sweden, with The Worried Man, yet to be translated into English, he gave us what he insists will be the last we shall hear of Wallander.

Mankell has also produced a plethora of "one-off" novels, non-fiction, children's books and Wallander–free thrillers. These other novels and mysteries all demonstrate that, without Wallander, the genius of Henning Mankell is stranded, like some great whale on a beach.

Such is the case with The Man From Beijing. It has many of the best Mankell attributes. Admirable in its concern about corruption, colonialism and ­cruelty, it is readable, tense, sometimes horrific and chilling in its precise delineation of brutal crime. But it is full of unbelievable moments and explanations. Mankell, it seems, needs the control imposed by the compelling personality of Wallander, and by the town of Ystad in Skåne, the most southern Swedish province, which to millions of Wallander aficionados is as familiar as Dickens's London.

In this novel Mankell races us through many countries and centuries. His heroine is Birgitta Roslin, a judge, married, her children grown. Her husband is a train conductor, a relationship incomprehensible to the class-conscious Anglo-Saxon but perfectly comprehensible in Swedish terms, as is the middle-age crisis of their relationship. Thanks to the dysfunctional childhood of her mother, Birgitta is related to a family most of whose members have been dismembered and horribly tortured to death in a tiny hamlet in northern Sweden. Through a family diary and a complex trail of events, she unravels a history of crime and even murder that takes us to 19th-century China and America, and to Africa and China today.

Colonialism is Mankell's target here, and he has China in his sights. There are some brilliant set pieces, and none more brilliant than the tragic account of the many thousands of Chinese peasants who, in the 19th century, were transported across the seas to hack the railroads of the US out of rock and mountain. These were among the millions of poor whom Mao Zedong marched to save. He failed, in his way, but Mankell delineates the China that has succeeded Mao's revolution as even worse – a monstrous, capitalist coloniser of a different sort, combining authoritarian rule and corruption at home and now adding rapaciousness to these attributes abroad, particularly in Africa.

Mankell's narrative skills are still in evidence. He can create an atmosphere of tension through the fluttering of the wings of a moth, a flurry of snow, the aromas of an African night. His dialogue beats to the meanings of words unsaid. Memory haunts the pages of the novel. But without Wallander to rein him in, there are a considerable number of inconsistencies in The Man From Beijing. The breathless scope of the novel leaves many incidents unresolved or hanging in the air. How, for instance, could 19 people be tortured and murdered in one night without at least one tiny scream being heard by the survivors?

Most unbelievable of all is the portrait of Ya Ru, the corrupt Chinese villain of the story. Ya Ru spends his life in a great glass igloo of a skyscraper in which all the furniture is "in tasteful shades of black and blood-red". We are many miles from the snows of Skåne here, and much nearer to the Hollywood villains of a Bond movie. Ya Ru looks down on and manipulates "the innermost circles of Communist rule", a rule now well on the way to corrupting all former revolutionary dreams as China joins Britain, America and other colonisers in the exploitation of Africa. (There is even an impressive appearance by Robert Mugabe.)

Mankell is a bloodhound in the pursuit of injustice, and can spot hypocrisy and cant in the historical myths of every imperial nation – past and present. But a hungover Wallander, retching over one bite of Ystad fast food, teaches us more about the evils of the modern global economy than all the dissertations on Chinese or European exploitation and hypocrisy. Moral outrage cannot make this overambitious and occasionally risible novel work as it should. Mankell's curse, it seems, is that, just as we cannot live without Wallander, neither can he.

Carmen Callil's Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is published by Vintage.

Carmen Callil

The GuardianTramp

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