I should say straightaway that I have long admired Henning Mankell and consider him to be the most distinguished of that very select group of Scandinavian crime writers that has continued to intrigue and amaze us over the last ten or fifteen years. I’m saying this now, because I found The Man from Beijing a very disappointing novel indeed.
It starts brilliantly, with the graphic but not unduly sensational description of the brutal massacre of almost the whole population of a remote Swedish village. Only one of the victims, a young boy, is not a resident of the village. The murder case is led by Vivi Sundberg, a brusque, unimaginative policewoman who is not meant to appeal to the reader. Instead, our sympathies are evoked by Birgitta Roslin, a middle-aged judge whose health is not good and whose marriage appears to have entered a state of gentle decline which she finds depressing. Birgitta is a complex and well-drawn character, one of Mankell’s best, and is, in fact, the only fully-rounded character in the whole book. She gets unofficially involved in the case because she realises that two of the murder victims are the very elderly step-parents of her own mother.
So far, so good. But then, through a chain of unlikely and unconvincing circumstances, Birgitta’s private investigation takes her to China. She happens to have a friend who is a Sinologist who happens to be speaking at a conference there. Both Birgitta and her friend were ardent supporters of Chairman Mao in their youth.
At this point, the novel separates into two strands. One of these, by far the weaker, continues with what are obviously going to be Birgitta’s fruitless efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery of the massacre. It is spiced up by the ever-present suggestion that her life is in danger. The other strand, which goes on for many pages – at least half of a book that totals 550 pages – is a political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction. Ostensibly, it is about the corruption of power and how far modern China has deviated from Mao’s ideals – themselves always false, which is made clear – while still paying lip-service to them; it is a political warning against the present-day colonisation of Africa by the Chinese government.
The political sub-plot – which after a short while almost completely eclipses the main plot – depends on two things: the literary device of using an omniscient narrator to describe certain atrocities carried out against a particular Chinese family during the nineteenth century, and the vicious manoeuvrings, even against each other, of a high-status Chinese political family in the present. It is suggested, but never made clear, that the latter are the descendants of one of the former, and that the wheel of human exploitation and misery has turned full circle. The modern Chinese characters are sketchily drawn – only two of them, Hong Qiu and her brother Ya Ru – have any distinguishing attributes, and the reader senses that these have been bolted on only in order to oil the creaking mechanism of the plot.
At the end of the novel, after several more deaths along the way, the mystery of the identity of the original murderer is solved, but unconvincingly. Several clues scattered at the beginning of the book remain unaccounted for. I’m not suggesting that this is in itself a fault (as I’ve made clear elsewhere, I dislike crime novels in which every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ crossed), but these clues are so extraordinary that I feel that we are owed some kind of explanation for them.
Most of all, however, the novel is dissatisfying because the reader feels bamboozled. I am aware that Henning Mankell is an expert on Africa and that he has written eloquently about its woes on many occasions. Even so, it just isn’t fair to place two or three hundred pages of what is at times a rambling political exegesis between the covers of what is meant to be a work of crime fiction. I read the book to the end in homage to the many hours of unalloyed pleasure that Mankell’s work has given to me. I suspect that some of its other readers will have lost patience long before they get there.
I bought this book because it has had some excellent reviews and also because I’ve met Anya Lipska on social networks, where she always speaks with great courtesy and perspicacity. I knew, therefore, that buying it would involve little risk!
The front of the jacket carries a quote from Emlyn Rees: ‘RIP Nordic crime. Here come the Poles’. That in itself is interesting, because I’ve read several novels this year that, like this one, are set partly in the UK and partly in Poland, the protagonists of which are either Polish ex-pats or the children of Polish ex-pats. I went overboard on the first of them, because the subject seemed to me to be so unusual and appealing. However, after I’d read two or three, I realised that they all focus on Poland’s recent troubled political past, especially the Soviet occupation. This actually gives them a much more limited appeal than that of Nordic crime, which deals with the many facets of modern society in the Nordic countries, not just one aspect of it. That first one, especially, was, upon a second reading, disappointing in terms of both technique and its author’s command of language.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is in a different league. It’s true that it touches on the Soviet occupation and dwells at length on Solidarity and its aftermath, but in a very sophisticated way. This is not a tub-thumping work. Anya Lipska demonstrates an impressive knowledge of Poland’s post-war political history and its residual effects, yet she does not parade her knowledge or make sweeping comments about a martyred state. Instead, she offers a wise, balanced and yet hard-hitting narrative. If I may say so in all humility, this is a very accomplished book indeed. It contains sinners, but no saints… and even the sinners are complicated characters. Lipska holds no truck with two-dimensional villains.
The hero, Janusz Kiszka, is decidedly flawed. He works as a builder, not always on the right side of the law. He has a very uncertain temper and is prone to bouts of despair. In some ways, he is the stereotypical Polish incomer – so much so that, given the quality of her writing, I suspect that at the beginning of the book Lipska is gently mocking her readers, leading them to the slightly smug but erroneous belief that they’ve come across this type before – perhaps in real life – and have got him taped. But Kiszka is full of surprises – and not contrived ones, either. Gradually, he is revealed as a complex, tragic and even noble character, who, although he is sometimes forced by circumstance to engage in James Bond-like escapades, possesses qualities to which Bond is a stranger: fear, remorse, reflectiveness and sensitivity. He is also an intellectual manqué. Yet he remains a bit of a rogue.
The minor characters are equally well-drawn. I particularly like the old priest, Father Pietruski, who, if not a rogue himself (a point that is never dwelt on too much) certainly understands rogues and can separate the ‘good’ ones from those with black hearts. He’s not averse to drinking with the former. Kasia, Janusz’s girlfriend, is also well-drawn. Married to a worthless man, she refuses to leave him because she takes her marriage vows seriously. She works as a stripper and her greatest aspiration is to own a nail bar. It is a tribute to Lipska’s talent that she is able to generate great sympathy for this woman and her drab, sleazy life. The novel also gets my vote because of the way in which it vividly and accurately captures local topographies: I can’t speak for the Polish scenes, but the London ones, with which I am familiar, are completely convincing.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is shot through with politics, but its core subject is something deeper: it is about the human condition itself. In this respect, as in many others, it resembles the work of the best of the Nordic writers; Henning Mankell springs to mind. Yet the authorial voice is Lipska’s own, unique and original.
I’m impressed by the young female detective, Natalie Kershaw, but it is Kiszka who steals the show; I’m not sure if this novel is the first of a series, and therefore whether more are planned, but I do hope so. I should very much like to encounter Janusz Kiszka again.