The successful franchise series can be a double-edged sword for the ambitious writer. While slipping into their fictional world and reacquainting themselves with their cash-cow doppelgangers can feel as comfortable as an old pair of slippers, there is also a tangible yearning for the release, the freedom that comes from shaking off the self-imposed shackles that are inherent in such a series—a desire to test themselves on something new.
Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes; recently Rankin retired off Rebus. Stephen King even based one of his novels on this contradiction, yet in Misery, there were horrific consequences for the writer when he tried to set himself free. And the same could be said for Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing.
Henning Mankell has frequently made conscious departures from his highly successful Wallander series over the years and with varying results. In his new stand-alone novel, The Man from Beijing, these varying results can be found in the very same work. The problem appears to be that by ditching Wallander, Mankell has given himself too much freedom. Too much scope. And the end result is an uneven, bloated novel that is far removed from the tight Mankell narrative we’ve grown to know and love.
It could have been so different had Mankell retained the same tight focus as in the explosive opening section and his carefully controlled revelation of the terrible massacre that has taken place in a remote Swedish village. On his home ground here, Mankell is at the height of his powers; he knows this liminal day/night world, this realm of silence and noise and of secrets and knowledge. He knows the sweeping landscape and he knows how to write about the randomness of the violence in such a place in a jaw-droppingly effective manner.
Mankell is an adept thriller writer, and he excels at the crescendos and rhythms that sweep the reader along through his snow-scape. He describes the sounds of crime beautifully: ”there is a silence in empty houses that is unique, she thought. People have left and taken all the noise with them.” But he also shows that he doesn’t need to put himself in the way of the exposition of the story. Often there is the bare minimum character description: ”he was a short, thin guy.” Here we have the pared-back, carefully chosen prose we recognize in a Wallander novel.
The problem with the novel starts when Mankell starts to widen out his viewfinder. In lurching from Sweden in 2006 to China in 1863, he telegraphs his desire to write a truly global thriller. A crime novel with a political agenda. Mankell is a self-proclaimed man of causes, many of which are laudable, but much of the second half of The Man from Beijing reads like a political tract, a modern day version of Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses nailed on the door of globalization. He loads up his literary scattergun and takes general aim at the state of the world, drawing the reader into what often reads like a scholarly debate on the impact of colonization, communism, and capitalism on our world.
Opening up the whole world as the subject of his novel is like a chasm yawning open underneath the reader. Suddenly there is no icy-solid ground. We are rudderless. At one stage, one of the policemen jokes: “this investigation is beginning to take on unheard of geographical proportions . . .” Only, it isn’t a joke; the narrative sweeps us across at least three separate time-frames, whizzes through Sweden, Nevada, China, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and London. And Mankell desperately tries to act as our tour guide throughout this whistle-stop journey; he tries to infect us with his enthusiasm, which often results in the reader becoming dizzy, disoriented by a narrative that constantly asks us to crane our necks from one side of the tour bus to the other as we try to take in his scattered views.
Fittingly, it is in his passages which describe some of the disorientation of the characters that Mankell suddenly discovers his effectiveness again. He talks about the weary traveler’s sense of alienation in a way which the reader can’t help but recognize: “On the way back to the hotel she once again had the vertiginous feeling that she could be swallowed up by the mass of humanity at any moment and never found again.” And again: “She had started to sense it during her morning walk through the streets—a feeling of listlessness that she couldn’t quite pin down. Surrounded by people, or alone in this anonymous hotel in the gigantic city, she felt her identity starting to fade away. Who would miss her if she got lost? Who would even notice that she existed?” By this stage of the novel, it is clear Mankell has forgotten that the reader exists.
His choice of characters is also hit and miss. The burly cop Vivi Sundberg is introduced in the opening chapters and is immediately interesting; however, we later discover she has only a supporting role in the unfolding drama. Vivi could possibly have shared the burden of the novel’s mad sweep quite effectively with the other lead character, Birgitta Roslin, but Birgitta is left to face the chaos virtually on her own.
Birgitta is a mass of contradictions. Mankell describes her well as the person who has “in just over twenty years . . . developed from a young and idealistic student to a mother of four children and a district judge.” She’s set up as Mankell’s mouthpiece: a serious, intelligent, politicized woman. And yet, bizarrely, Mankell writes that it is one of her deepest desires to write the winning entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.
A more serious accusation for the serious crime-writer is that there is something faintly primitive about the villain, Ya Ru. Ya Ru is a man who “loved the shadows.” He is a cog within the cogs of the Communist Party. A man who looks down on the world from his high tower, keeping his hands clean while his flunkies undertake the dirty work. And yet, at the end of the piece, as his desire for revenge against those who have so brutally wronged his ancestors starts to consume him, we discover him in London, moving out of the shadows, exposing himself most strangely. His plan to get rid of Birgitta reads like something in an old Poirot novel, or Miss Marple, rather than in a modern, globalized thriller. Mankell tells us on the hush-hush that Ya Ru’s fiendish plot to kill her by slipping ground-up glass into her coffee cup while she is eating breakfast in a busy hotel is an “old, sophisticated Chinese method of killing people.”
Such clichéd writing is disappointing. And clichés are not limited to the plot and characters. They also infect the prose in the end; we hear: “if you want to make an omelet, you have to break an egg,” and “the devil is always in the details.” At times, as the writing becomes more and more clunky, Mankell should remember his own maxim, spoken through the mouthpiece of Birgitta: “Her pen seemed to her like a chain saw clearing the undergrowth in a forest, and she needed to be careful in case there was a young deer hiding in there.”
The Man from Beijing is ambitious, impassioned and brave, but it is also often unwieldy, awkward, and confusing. At one point in the novel, Birgitta describes watching a Jane Fonda movie and finding the plot “peculiar;” the same could be said here. And it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the book would have benefited from being kept on the leash, by retaining its initial focus. Perhaps by being properly contained by the red ribbon which could have so neatly tied everything together at the end, but didn’t. In a novel that explores the boundaries between political maneuverings and human rights, individual freedoms and state constraints, perhaps Mankell allowed himself the pleasure of too much freedom.