It's not just an awareness of where our sneakers were made or who is (or isn't) buying the timber cut in our forests. Nor is it the increasing number of families whose grown children are marrying or partnering with people from cultures far beyond what our televisions have taught us.
Rather, now we affect each other across miles, oceans, and continents.
Perhaps we always have. But now we know about it -- we notice it. And to this global world, where many nations assist recovery from the Katrina floods and the Haiti earthquakes, where we eat raw fish (after growing up hearing people say they never would!) or soy cubes or organic milk products, to this increasing awareness of being present in each other's lives, Henning Mankell brings his 2010 thriller, THE MAN FROM BEIJING.
The action opens with a lone wolf, crossing national boundaries without a passport or anyone noticing its passage, entering Sweden on a hunt for fresh meat. When the male wolf finally finds something to eat, it's already dead, but just barely. A horrifying mass murder, unique in a peaceful country, is being discovered -- nineteen people have been slaughtered in a small, winter-wrapped village.
What the three police officers discovered was unprecedented in the annals of Swedish crime and would become a part of Swedish legal history. There were bodies in every house. Dogs and cats had been stabbed to deal, even a parrot with its head cut off. They found a total of 19 dead people, all of them elderly except for a boy who must have been about twelve. Some had been killed while asleep in bed, others were lying on the floor or sitting on chairs at the kitchen table. An old woman had died with a comb in her hand, a man by a stove with an overturned coffee pot by his side. In one house they found two people locked in an embrace and tied together. All had been subjected to frenzied violence.[This time, Mankell doesn't get much more graphic in his descriptions of violence than this early scene. So if you haven't tried one of his books yet for fear of the blood and guts, this may be the one where you can safely plunge. Beware, though -- the tension and terror can rise without blood.]
As multiple levels of police investigations arrive, so does a judge from the city of Helsingbord: Birgitta Roslin. A woman who labors for justice within a challenging legal system, and whose personal roots include fighting for a better world, Roslin is startled to discover that her background links her to the massacre being reported. Simultaneously, her mid-life crisis hits at freight-train speed and power. When she plunges abruptly into the crime investigation, she does so without friends or support, other than the frayed edges of her professional role. And in a Chinese restaurant near the massacre scene, she insists on pulling together pieces of information that clearly belong together, but seem senseless: a matching massacre in another place, a piece of ribbon, a family tree.
It struck her that neither she nor the police had the slightest idea what had happened. It was all much bigger, deeper, and more mysterious than any of them could have imagined.In an unexpected lunge, Mankell abruptly takes the novel to another continent and a time a hundred and fifty years earlier. Crime, it appears, has long roots, and the more personal it is, the longer the roots seem to grow. Brutality, cruelty, and murder produce results that don't just descend for generations of Swedes and those who have traveled and worked with them; they also can spread and magnify over time, increasing the injustice and violence invoked.
They knew absolutely nothing.
This is a dark and relentless tale, tightly paced, persistent. In his reach across nations and time periods, Mankell echoes what John Le Carré did with The Constant Gardener -- with some of the same effects. The demand for a reckoning is there; so is the determined witnessing to injustice that includes the damage done by colonialism. Mankell adds the bleak side of communism and popular movements as well. And his choice of Birgitta Roslin, and of several other strong women in the narrative, captures a similarity between China and today's Sweden in expecting women to manage their share of power.
There's no doubt that plowing through this fierce and all too realistic international thriller will make clear many of Mankell's passions and beliefs about evil and about justice. A look at his web site, with its columns and calls to action, confirms that this novel offers a very personal statement.
Whether it is a satisfying read, however, will depend on each reader's weighing of how Mankell has played darkness against light, terror against hope. The isolation of Birgitta Roslin barely cracks open throughout the nightmare of her months of chasing the truth and being haunted by violence.
As Roslin repeats, in frightening circumstances in a distant land: What has happened is big, too big for me alone.