Friday, March 5, 2010


By Henning Mankell

Knopf, $25.95,

384 pages


It begins with a starving wolf chewing on the leg of a man slain in a village massacre in Sweden. And it ends with the wolf.

In between, Henning Mankell takes his readers from Sweden to England, Africa and China on a whirlwind of an international plot that has its roots in the desperation of Chinese slave workers that evolved into the slaying of 19 Swedes by a hit man wielding a sword.

Simple it’s not. But Mr. Mankell never is. This is one of his most complicated and skilled mysteries, in which dark threads are woven into an unlikely conclusion. His writing is reflected in the first sentences of this latest book, which read, “Frozen snow, severe frost. Midwinter … a lone wolf crosses the unmarked border and enters Sweden from Norway. … It is beginning to feel the pain of hunger and is desperately searching for food.”

The hungry young wolf finds food after it detects the smell of blood in the tiny village of Hesjovallen.

What it has welcomed as nourishment causes a heart attack for a wandering photographer confronted by the horror of what he sees in the houses of the remote little village. It becomes an international crime scene, invaded by police and journalists. Strangely, it also attracts the attention of Birgitta Roslin, a judge in a Swedish city, who suddenly realizes she has a connection to the victms of the village. She is drawn reluctantly into the investigation, in which her only clue is a red ribbon found at the scene, with its match at a restaurant in a nearby town where a mysterious Chinese stranger had spent the night of the killings.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Mr. Mankell’s latest thriller charges along, and it is not only about murder. Its reach is global, and its cast ranges from the Swedish judge who inadvertently becomes involved in an international nightmare to three brothers fleeing brutality and slavery in 19th-century China and America.

Their descendant is Ya Ru, a modern Chinese tycoon who “always looked to the leopard when he wanted to understand his own behavior and that of others. He was the leopard, and he also was the stallion that fought off all challengers in order to become the sole emperor.”

His ambitions are transcontinental, involving sending millions of peasants to African countries to increase Chinese power in a “cynical repetition of the colonialism practised earlier by the Western world.” It is his concept of a challenge to all that China might be, in a nation where those without power had no hope of ever achieving it. The diaries of Ya Ru and the translations made by his sister, Hong, whom he has had murdered to prevent her interference with his goals, are a key to the mystery that stretches across continents to a Swedish village in midwinter.

Mr. Mankell leaps philosophical and psychological obstacles as his plot picks up speed, and his characters ultimately spin around the sinister and lethal figure of Ya Ru. The Swedish judge, who does not entirely understand why she is making the most dangerous quest of her life, is aware of the menace that threatens her.

It is characteristic of Ya Ru that his chosen method of destruction for those who impede his path is ground glass, an ancient Chinese method of assassination. The inclusion of reality in the form of Chinese leaders and those who came to power in Africa after the end of British colonialism gives strength to Ya Ru’s philosophy and also to Mr. Mankell’s theme of inexorable revenge.

Liu, the killer of the villagers, recalls on the brink of the massacre in the village what Ya Ru had told him in the course of a journey that had continued for many years across continents, filled with fear and death and unbearable persecution:

“And now came the necessary ending, the revenge. … He had been given the task of putting an end to that painful dirge. He tried to think of the people in the silent houses that way. They all had white faces; they were the demons of evil.” Perhaps the darkest irony is that the devoted and dedicated Liu is also killed with the same indifference with which Ya Ru murders his sister. The wolf who first found the village of the dead is eventually shot as it continues to search for food.

“The hamlet of Hesjovallen is empty,” the author notes, “Nobody lived there any more. Fall was closing in … People were beginning to prepare themselves for another long winter.” Perhaps that is the ultimate revenge of Ya Ru.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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