Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell (hardcover, $25.95)

Chinese ideology aside, this is a very interesting standalone novel for Mankell. And despite the title, some of the action takes place in Mozambique, where Mankell resides part of the year. It's certainly the most peripatetic novel I can remember Mankell writing, with scenes taking place in Sweden, England, China, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. If Mankell had deleted the overly long explanation of current Chinese backroom politics, the novel would have been far less than the 363 pages, and the story would have been tighter. I read far more about Chinese affairs -- probable or improbable -- than was good for me. I'm not saying that what Mankell said wasn't important and worthy of discussion; it just was too long for a crime novel.

Why the civics lesson? Hatred can go back a long way. Inequity can be institutionalized. Revenge can simmer for generations. It wasn't right how Chinese immigrants were treated when working on American railroads 150 years ago. It wasn't right that Chinese peasants were treated as disposable labor for centuries. It wasn't right that students died in Tiananmen Square. It isn't right that poor people have starved, that families have been separated in order to survive. Mankell has emblazoned all these wrongs in the pages of The Man from Beijing. Almost lost in the process is a pretty good story.

At the center of the story is a Swedish judge, Birgitta Roslin. When a tiny Swedish village is massacred in the night, Roslin discovers she is related to a few of the victims. Using a great deal of literary shenanigans, Roslin accidentally discovers a connection to a man from Beijing. When she coincidentally travels to China with a friend, she continues to investigate, although the Swedish police have declared the case closed. When she coincidentally shows a picture of a man to one of the few people who could identify him -- just how many people live in China? -- she shines the spotlight on herself. Now the assassin could be after her. Actually, it's not hard to swallow the coincidences. Even Roslin's arrogant character ("Just tell her the judge is calling. That's all you need to know.") and bumbling interviews, don't interfere with how interesting the tale is.

Mankell's book begins with a horrible crime, elements of which seem fantastic or supernatural, but Mankell brings the crime back down to the very human emotion that drives the perpetrator. The little tales, in this case compared to the history of modern China, that he tells tug at your heart.

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