LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The peaceful countries of Scandinavia are producing quantities of murder and mayhem these days in the form of best-selling mystery novels. Perhaps it's those long, dark winters. Leading the invasion of Nordic noir is Sweden's Henning Mankell. He's well known as the creator of the gruff and rumpled detective Kurt Wallander, now the subject of a PBS series. And while Mankell's latest book, "The Man from Beijing," has a different hero, readers will still be hooked by the saga and the opening scene.
A photographer is traveling through rural Sweden in winter. He arrives in a village he plans to photograph, but something about the cluster of small houses seems wrong.
Mr. HENNING MANKELL (Author, "The Man from Beijing"): The chimneys, they were cold. There was no sign of smoke. His gaze moved slowly from house to house. Somebody's cleared the snow already, he thought, but not lit a single fire?
WERTHEIMER: That's Henning Mankell reading from the beginning of "The Man from Beijing."
Mr. MANKELL: He remembered the letter he'd received from the man who had told him about the village. He had referred to the chimneys and how the houses seemed, in a childish sort of way, to be sending smoke signals to one another, but now not a sign of smoke.
WERTHEIMER: And from there it gets really scary. Because when the photographer goes to try to find somebody in the village, knocks on doors, nobody answers. Finally, he looks in the window, and almost everyone, the whole village, is dead.
Mr. MANKELL: Yes, that's the starting point of the story, yes.
WERTHEIMER: Has anything like that ever happened in Sweden? A mass murder of that kind?
Mr. MANKELL: As far as I know, never. But I do write fiction, and the definition of fiction is very simple. It is that what I write is something that could have happened, but not necessarily has happened.
WERTHEIMER: Many of your books have been thrillers of one kind or another or police procedurals. This book represents a change in that your detective, Kurt Wallander, is not in it, and you've switched to a cast of characters that are almost all women - not only the protagonist who solves the problem, but other characters as well. There are a whole lot of women in this book.
Mr. MANKELL: Yes. I grew up - my father was a judge. This time when I wrote "The Man from Beijing," I decided to use my knowledge about, well, the knowledge of a judge. But to distance myself from my father, I chose to make a female judge.
WERTHEIMER: Is it different to write about women?
Mr. MANKELL: Well, I'm always very interested reading what women write about men. So I guess that women are as interested to see what men are writing about women. Since we are living in a world where women are almost always better than men on doing everything, then I think it's very important to find out why is it so.
Why do women do things better than men? I really mean now what I'm saying. Because women doesn't start war, for example, and - so I'm always very interested to see the perspective of women - how they look upon the world.
WERTHEIMER: The story is - is a complicated story and it - you switch scenes there from Sweden to briefly in the United States. Africa plays a role, but mostly China. Where does that come from?
Mr. MANKELL: As you know, I live part time all my life in Africa. Since almost 30 years, I live in Mozambique. And about 10 years ago, the Chinese government had offered the government of Mozambique to build a new building for the ministry of foreign affairs. And fine, that's good. And so the Chinese started to build this building.
But then suddenly there were rumors that the Chinese foremen, they treat the African workers badly, and there were even rumors that the Chinese foremen started to beat the African workers. And at that time, I asked myself, hey, what is happening here? And at that time I decided I would like to write about this.
WERTHEIMER: Part of your plot in writing about the Chinese coming to Africa is - you are writing about the idea of dominion, of domination - China absorbing Africa's natural resources and taking them away. Do you actually see any of that kind of thing happening? I mean, you are living in Africa. You have a view of it that we don't have.
Mr. MANKELL: Yeah, I see a good presence of the Chinese. I see how they offered willingly to help with building infrastructures. But the other side of the coin is some tendencies of a sort of colonial idea, and one of the worst cases, and this is really happening, and this goes not only for China, it's also other countries in Asia that is now buying up agricultural land in Africa, where they're supposed to be produced food that is being brought back to China while the hungry Africans are standing outside.
So I would say that I am building my novel on facts and on real worries. I really think it's very good that China takes an important role and position in the world. But we have to have a critical view upon that as we have to have for the Russians and even for the Americans, in a way.
WERTHEIMER: So what do you think is coming next? Are you still thinking in these terms of China and Africa, the judicial system, are you going back to Wallander?
Mr. MANKELL: No. Actually, I think that I'm going in another direction now. As you know, it's very difficult. You shouldn't talk about what you are writing for the time being. But next novel, it's going to be something very, very, very different.
WERTHEIMER: No hint?
Mr. MANKELL: The leading lady will once again be a lady, and it's going to be a Swedish woman that goes, 100 years ago - this is built upon a real story - that goes to Africa and all of a sudden finds herself as an owner of a brothel. But more than that I cannot say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANKELL: It's a good start of a story, don't you think?
WERTHEIMER: I would say it's a very good start of a story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much.
Mr. MANKELL: Thank you. Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Henning Mankell is the author of "The Man from Beijing." He also writes the popular Kurt Wallander series, and he says be on the lookout for another Wallander book. It is called "The Troubled Man." It arrives in the States in 2011. And if you want more of that chilling beginning of "The Man from Beijing," read it at our Web site, npr.org.
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