In the first few pages of Henning Mankell’s latest book, The Man from Beijing, a photographer stumbles across a horrific crime committed in an isolated hamlet in the north of Sweden. It is so gruesome he has a heart attack when he tries to get away in his car, loses control, skids across to the other side of the road and collides with a lorry coming from the other direction. Within a few pages there are twenty people dead, 18 elderly inhabitants of the hamlet, a boy of twelve on a visit to his grandparents, and the photographer. There are more to come.
This is not, however, your run of the mill crime story where it is all about finding the perpetrator(s). To understand what has happened, Mankell takes us back to 19th century China and America when Chinese, as well as blacks and Indians were used as slaves in America, to help build the Nevada railway line and other infrastructure; subsequently the story moves to modern-day Beijing where a great-grandson of one of the Chinese slaves belongs to the power elite in China, which is engaged in a struggle about the political course to be taken after the realisation that Mao did not get it always right, and that in modern China there is as much of a class divide as there was in pre-Mao times.
Meanwhile a Swedish judge becomes involved in the story when she discovers letters and a diary belonging to her mother’s stepparents, both killed in the Swedish hamlet. You almost feel as if the crime committed in Sweden in fact is an excuse for a commentary on what happened in colonial times and to point out that in fact not much has changed, only other nations and classes of people are taking control, ensuring their own well-being in a world with limited resources for everyone.
I found the book a page turner or rather an e-reader clicker moving on and on and was fascinated by the social commentary. This was just right for a couple of hot days on the beach, interspersed by cooling down in the blue sea, swimming out to the buoys and back or tracing the coast with granddaughter splashing alongside, chatting nonstop about everything see sees and thinks about.
This is definitely one of his best, well worth taking with you on holiday, or loading onto your Kindle or e-reader.
I’m following this one up with another Arnaldur Indridason: Hypothermia. Only one more day to go though, tomorrow on Wednesday we’ll be flying back, but not until granddaughter has picked the winners of the Literary Book Give-away. You can still put your name down!