Review: The Man from Beijing

April 30, 2011
Author: Henning Mankell
Publisher: Random House Group
Year: 2010
ISBN: 9781846552588
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing advertises itself as a political thriller and a detective story spanning generations and continents. The book in itself unfolds in a particularly gruesome albeit quite riveting manner with the discovery of a mass murder in a remote hamlet of Sweden, Hesjovallen. The massacre leaves the police befuddled while presenting them with exactly two clues – that the victims are distantly related and the presence of a single red silk ribbon.

This point marks the readers introduction to the main protagonist, Birgitta Roslin, a judge with a curious link to one of the murdered couples. This discovery, and a convenient two week doctor ordered sabbatical prompts the judge to travel to Hesjovallen herself in an inquisitive attempt to find out more about the couple she was distantly related to. By a twist of fate, she inadvertently begins to solve the case, which causes her to leave behind the wintry confines of Sweden and takes her on a perilous journey of China.

While Henning Mankell’s premise for the story in itself is quite interesting, the thriller gets lost in an extended plot. Laurie Thompson’s translation is, in particular, stilted and filled with clichés, making for an often exasperating read. How much of this can be credited to Mankell’s original text is unknown. Also the narrative often seems to be a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces fit all too well together. The protagonist does not seem to encounter too many difficulties in her endeavour to get to the truth. Her knack at finding one clue after another seems laughably unreal. Other characters seem to weave in and out of the story in order to facilitate Birgitta Roslin’s quest. While this seems not only to raise more questions within the plot itself, it also denies the reader the joy of building a rapport with some quite interesting characters who are left by the wayside.

The most consistent theme within the book may just be Mankell’s constant social criticism. The circuitous tale makes its way through 19th century Guangzhou, Nevada, present day Sweden and Beijing before culminating in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Mankell’s tries to draw parallels between colonial imperialism and present day Chinese exploitation of African resources, claiming that while problematic, at the very essence both are no different from the other. While his social consciousness and his subsequent effort to draw the same into his writing is commendable, it comes at the cost of an interesting book. The novel falls sadly short of the mark, unfortunately leaving readers with none of the satisfaction that one looks forward to at the end of an whodunit.

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