The Man from Beijing
The Man from Beijing was first published in Sweden in 2008. The English translation appeared this February. It is a fine, sweeping mystery that begins with a mass murder in a remote Swedish village, followed by a cascade of homicides on three other continents. The story is set in the present with an extended flashback to 19th-century America.
The nighttime slaughter of all but a few of fictitious Hesjövallen’s mostly related inhabitants makes headlines everywhere. The adoptive parents of Judge Birgitta Roslin’s mother are among the victims. Judge Roslin is drawn to the site and finds a diary among their possessions – a diary that starts her on a private investigation into the past and ends with her enmeshed in a high stakes and dangerous game being played out in the highest echelons of Beijing politics.
The historical part of the story recounts the recruitment – read, capture – of young Chinese males in the mid-1800s. The involuntary indentured workers were used not only to build the American intercontinental railroad but to labor in such places as British Guinea and the silver mines of Peru. Recruiting agents based in Canton managed the slave trade. Mankell’s descriptions of the work and living conditions of Chinese indentured laborers building the intercontinental railroad are embarrassingly true to historical accounts.
The Man from Beijing is not only a first-rate mystery. Its characters are refreshingly intelligent, though also very human. The author interweaves social and political commentary with dialogue about relationships and home. The characters’ perspectives on China’s development and Zimbabwe’s history will be surprising to many American readers.
It may be more than unlikely that a private citizen, even a judge, could unravel a plot laid at the social and political levels Mankell’s story describes. But it makes for great reading. Two thumbs up!