Henning Mankell‘s The Man From Beijing is another in a line of books that is just a bit confusing for me. This novel is beautifully written, with some characters that draw me in. In the vein of this neo-noir fiction coming from Sweden lately, the setting is stark. The weather reflects the harshness of the plot; it’s always raining or snowing.
This is ostensibly a mystery novel, beginning with a terrifying hook: overnight, in the small Swedish village of Hesjövallen, nineteen people are brutally murdered. They’re all elderly, with the exception of a young boy. The only people left alive are a younger couple and a senile woman who had been wandering about the woods, unnoticed. This is the worst crime in Swedish history, and it’s garnered international attention. It is no surprise, then, when Judge Birgitta Roslin also takes notice of the horrific events. She discovers that she has a small connection to the murdered people, something which has grabbed her attention and led her to start an investigation of her own. This investigation takes her to completely unexpected places. She discovers a link to the distant past, as well as distant lands, acts of revenge that are startling in their patience. In more ways that one, this book demonstrates that “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
As I’ve said, this book is beautifully written; the setting is bleak yet infused with a cold, harsh atmosphere. Birgitta Roslin is interesting, and a departure from the stereotypical amateur sleuth; she’s closer to Miss Marple than to Kurt Wallander or Lisbeth Salander. However, my primary complaint comes in the lack of cohesiveness in the separate story lines. It does not feel like a single narrative. Each storyline is interesting, and they’re drawn together, but I figured out the mystery early on, and then we went from Sweden to China to Zimbabwe to Mozambique–which just felt contrived. It felt like what should have been a straightforward mystery was trying to be more complex than it should be, trying to capitalize on the broad scope of a Ludlum or Clancy novel, rather than a compelling, tightly-crafted mystery.