I love to read mysteries. It's the first section I always check out when I am looking for something to read. As a result, I have read many, many titles in this genre and have grown tired of the typical LA or New York gumshoe stereotype. With the exception of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, I am just not interested in a new title featuring some (ex)-alcoholic, self-destructive detective who works against the system to find the newest serial killer. But even Bosch is getting a little rote lately. So, I search out mysteries with anything out of the ordinary, picking up just about any mystery set in another country, time or written by a foreign author. This has led me to find the works of James Lee Burke (I rabidly await each new James Robicheaux title) and Louis Bayard, to name just a few of the discoveries I have enjoyed.
When Amazon Vine made "The Man from Beijing" available, I jumped at the chance to read the newest book by Swedish author Hanning Mankell. I have seen his Kurt Wallander novels in bookstores, but never tried one. I decided it was time.
I quickly realized this new title was a 'stand-alone' featuring a new character, the middle-aged Judge Brigitta Roslin. While I was initially disappointed, I think this is ultimately a better way to experience Mankell's writing, especially since I am not starting with the first Wallander title.
A horrific mass murder in a remote Swedish village near the Norway border, in the dead of night and the middle of winter, sets the police force on edge. They have never seen anything like this crime; all 19 of the elderly people living in the little village are killed along with a young boy who appears to have been visiting one of the couples. The sheer number of murders and their brutality cause the police to shift into overdrive and cause them to scramble for clues and leads, leading them further away from the truth. Brigitta Roslin, over-worked and dissatisfied with her long marriage to a cold, unresponsive train conductor, realizes she may be connected to the town; her mother once lived there. She is drawn to the area, using an unplanned medical leave to visit the remote village. While visiting her mother's former house, she finds a diary from an ancestor recounting his days as a foreman while overseeing Chinese workers and the building of the transcontinental railroad in America 150 years earlier. Brigitta realizes there is a connection and finds out a strange Chinese man was staying near the village around the time of the slaying. She begins to connect the dots and decides to accompany an old friend on a trip to Beijing. While there, she attracts the attention of a number of people and soon realizes her life may be in danger.
As this is my first experience with Mankell's writing, I am unable to compare "Beijing" to any of the Wallander books. But I like Mankell's writing style and liked many things about this book. But I also didn't like some things about the story.
As I read the book, I felt Mankell was being sparse with his words. Yet, as I delved deeper into the book, I felt the title would benefit from a stronger edit. Shifting back and forth like this, while reading, made for an interesting experience. At times, Mankell simply states a character's emotion or state of mind. "Brigitta Roslin felt tired" is a very vague example. As I read various examples of this type of statement, I felt the author was trying to keep things moving and I found this a bit refreshing. Mankell goes into more detail when he feels it necessary, when he doesn't we get short declarative statements. I have found other authors born in other countries do a similar thing. Then, as the story develops, Mankell begins to incorporate lengthy back-stories about other characters involved in Brigitta's life, giving us what seem to be minute details about the political and economic climate of the time. One character has a lengthy inner monologue about the conflict between preserving the past and paving the way for the future of Beijing in preparation for the Olympic games. Then, there are lengthy inner-monologues about the Chinese government's involvement (colonization?) of various African governments. You may ask what possible connection these passages could have to an aging Swedish judge, but they do connect. I'm just not sure we need all of the details Mankell provides us. In a sense, the reader becomes extremely well-informed about all of these characters, but it becomes a slow read.
When the story seems well-focused, this same attention to detail helps to bring the narrative alive. As Brigitta arrives in, and explores, the area where the killings took place, we see the area developing before our eyes as she would, gathering details and building a picture. When she visits a small rundown hotel, we get an instant sense of the state of the facility, the people who work there, their attitude. He does a great job of bringing the locations and the people to life.
Judge Brigitta Roslin is about as unconventional a hero as you can get. A middle-aged female Judge, frustrated with the lack of affection from her husband, finds she may have a connection to a horrific mass murder. As she begins to look into details, she finds information the police overlook or don't deem important enough to investigate. And she begins to connect the dots. As she does this, her training as a member of the judiciary, leads her to turn a fresh eye, but an unemotional one (at least most of the time) allowing her to find out information seasoned professionals disregard. Along the way, we learn about her life, her relationship with her husband, children and co-workers, her attitude toward her life and job, her outlook on life. We even learn about her back-story, finding out about her history through conversations she has with her longtime friend. All of this helps to paint a fascinating portrait of a woman we would not normally expect in such a novel.
I also appreciate the story because it is fairly unconventional in both narrative and scope. It isn't often we find a protagonist who is a middle-aged female judge. Basically, she asks questions, integrating herself into the story. For much of the novel, she isn't in a lot of danger and this would generally cause me to lose interest. It is a mystery, a suspense novel, and you would expect a certain amount of conflict to keep the narrative moving. Brigitta finds herself in peril late in the novel, very late, but I didn't mind that because I was always interested in where the author was taking us.
This is the key problem with "The Man From Beijing". Mankell takes us to a variety of places that don't seem to have a connection. Once we get there, we have to figure out the connection and when the author establishes this, we are connected. But then he begins to give us too much, providing us the deepest possible knowledge of the history and back-story of these characters and their actions. It is a lot of detail and not all of it is necessary to our understanding of the story. And when this becomes a pattern, the story seems to have a lot of stop signs and pauses interrupting the flow of the story. This is too bad because it is a story that you want to devour. And Mankell's writing seems to insist that we chew each bite 100 times.