Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Man from Beijing


Henning Mankell is best known for having created fictional detective Kurt Wallander, a character I am familiar with via a couple of BBC adaptations of Mankell’s work.  Wallander is typical of the genre, I suppose.  He is another of those broken down, older detectives whose personal life is in ruins but who gamely carries on with catching the local bad guys.  It is all very dark and moody, but I almost always take to that type of atmosphere and character and that is what I expected to get from The Man from Beijing.

And, at first, that is what I got.  The story opens at the scene of a spectacular mass murder in one of Sweden’s most isolated little villages.  All but three of the village’s twenty-two inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered in just a few hours and police are struggling to identify either a motive for the murders or a suspect.  When Judge Birgitta Roslin, who is on a two-week medical leave from the bench, realizes that this is the same village her mother was raised in, she decides to go there for a personal look.  Once there, and sensing that the police investigation is headed in the wrong direction, Roslin begins her own - an investigation that leads her to believe that a Chinese assassin is responsible for the deaths.

Butting heads with the local police, however, proves to be rather fruitless, so Roslin continues to nose around on her own.  Her amateur investigation brings her all the way to China where her efforts attract the attention of the wrong people.  Just happy to escape Beijing in one piece, Roslin returns to Sweden only to find that her Chinese troubles have followed her home.

Henning Mankell
Henning Mankell had the makings of a snappy crime thriller on his hands if he had only stuck with this basic plot and characters.  Even the long flashback dealing with San, a Chinaman kidnapped to work on America’s transcontinental railroad was interesting (and directly pertained to the plot), although, for the most part, very dryly narrated.  By the time Mankell got back to present day Sweden, I was beginning to get a little hazy on some of the murder details and the Swedish characters.  I managed to get myself back on track only to find that Mankell had a long, boring harangue in store for his readers.  The author managed to move the side plot along eventually, but along the way he had one of his main characters read segments of political speeches that in real time were said to last four or five hours.  As I listened to Mankell defend the likes of Chairman Mao and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I began to understand how the character’s captive audience must have felt.

This is a good book gone very, very bad.  It reads more as an excuse for Mankell to preach his own leftist political views than as a book to be enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans.  Had The Man from Beijing been properly edited, it could have been a gripping police procedural about a stunning crime.  As is, it is a tremendous bore about a stunning crime.

Rated at: 1.5


4 comments:

  1. I wasn't much pleased with this one. :) I felt like a captive audience and harangued, as well!

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  2. I just had such a strong recommendation from an author re: Menkell the other day that I was about to add him to my TBR list. I think we have the same taste in detectives, you and I, but I've never read a Kurt Wallender.

    To be honest the book lost me with the massacre of 22 people in one village. Personally, I'm sick of mystery novels with fantastic crimes. How I long for simple murder.

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  3. It was an early effort on his part, Jenclair. Hopefully, he got a whole lot better. I'n going to give him one more try, I think.

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  4. James, this was a one-off kind of thing, I hope. Mankell is very politically active in the real world - very left wing and anti-Israel, for sure. The BBC adaptations of his work that I've seen don't even hint at politics, so I hope the man got it out of his system with this book. I think he forgot not to bore his readers to death with his personal politics.

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