THE MAN FROM BEIJING by Henning Mankell

Book Quote:

“I understand that this letter will wreak havoc with your investigation. But what we are all searching for, of course, is clarity. I hope that what I have written can contribute to that…. The day we stop searching for the truth, which is never objective but under the best circumstances built on facts, is the day on which our system of justice collapses completely.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (FEB 16, 2010)

Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing, ably translated by Laurie Thompson, opens in January 2006. It is eerily quiet in the northern Swedish hamlet of Hesjövallen. No smoke rises from the chimneys and not a soul stirs. A photographer studying deserted villages in Sweden arrives and knocks on doors, but no one answers. Fearing that something is wrong, he breaks into one of the houses and to his horror, “there was an old woman lying on the kitchen floor. Her head was almost totally severed from her neck. Beside her lay the carcass of a dog, cut in two.” This isolated place will soon make headlines as the scene of a massacre “unprecedented in the annals of Swedish crime.” An unknown assailant used an extremely sharp weapon to torture and cut up his victims.

After Detective Vivian Sundberg and her team survey the carnage, they call for reinforcements, but even experienced law enforcement officials are stymied by the slaughter of nineteen people, most of them elderly. Equally puzzling is the fact that three individuals living in Hesjövallen were left alive. A district judge, fifty-seven year old Birgitta Roslin, has a personal interest in the matter (her mother grew up in Hesjövallen), and we get to know Roslin intimately. She takes her job seriously, suffers from recurrent panic attacks and high-blood pressure, has four grown children whom she sees infrequently, and worries about the future of her passionless marriage. Her fate will be inextricably tied up with the mass murder, which grew out of terrible events whose roots lie in the distant past.

The beginning of the book has an epic sweep and is absolutely mesmerizing. Mankell takes us to China in 1863, where the peasants live in squalor and are oppressed by wealthy and avaricious landowners. The author poignantly recounts the odyssey of three orphaned brothers who travel to Canton to find work. Eventually, they cross the path of predators who transport them in chains to the United States, where they spend many backbreaking hours cleaving mountains and laying rail lines for the transcontinental railroad. Because one of the brothers manages to survive long enough to leave a detailed diary, the tale of his family’s suffering will have grave consequences more than a century later.
Birgitta, whose mother grew up with foster parents in Hesjövallen, uses her sharp judicial mind to form a theory about the killings, based on the fact that a Chinese man was seen in the vicinity of Hesjövallen around the time of the murders. Since the police do not take her ideas seriously, she takes advantage of an opportunity to visit China with an old friend, Karin. There, Birgitta visits the Forbidden City, sees the Great Wall, and reminisces about her younger years as a radical who supported Mao’s ideals of solidarity and liberation. She also tries to learn the identity of the man behind the mass execution in Sweden. Unfortunately, her inquiries place her in danger, since she is being watched by a powerful and psychotic villain who will dispose of her if she gets too close to the truth.

Here, the novel starts to lose steam, as Mankell not only reveals the identity of the killer (a one-dimensional monster), but also introduces too many extraneous characters and subplots. Also irritating is the incredible ineptitude of the Swedish police, who are so clueless that Birgitta has to do their job for them. In addition, the pace of the narrative is slowed by tedious and heavy-handed passages in which various individuals lecture about China’s path to the future. Should this emerging superpower make more of an effort to stay true to its communist roots instead of succumbing to the lures of capitalism? Mankell has combined a crime story with a depiction of a female jurist’s midlife crisis and a polemic about China’s efforts to become a worldwide economic and political force. This is far too much baggage for one work of fiction.

The Man from Beijing might have been more satisfying had the author focused throughout on the massacre and on Birgitta’s efforts to solve the mystery and put her troubled life back together. As it stands, Mankell has written half of a good novel. The second half is a bit dreary and diffuse, and it will take some persistence to stay the course for the entire 366 pages.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 186 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (February 16, 2010)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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February 16, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Mystery/Suspense, Sweden, Swedish Crime Writer, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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