Friday, March 19, 2010

The Man from Beijing, Henning Mankell

Can hate be hereditary? Does our DNA include code for revenge? Reading The Man from Beijing is likely to make you ponder these very questions. Mankell’s novel is a first rate thriller that goes beyond mystery into incredible historical narratives. It spans three continents (Europe, Asia and North America) and several generations, travelling from remote villages in China to the U.S. and the building of the rail lines of the West.

The novel starts with the grisly discovery of 19 dead bodies in a remote village in Sweden. The eerie crime introduces us to a three unique female characters: a detective working the case, a federal judge from Skane and a Communist Party member from Beijing. All three are linked in the complicated puzzle of the crime, one that originates more than 100 years before the murders.

The pace is brisk, the writing lean and the plot complex. At times I needed to pause and mentally regroup, just to get my bearings. This isn’t a quick or easy read because the author digs far deeper into historical details than most novels. Much of the story relates to experiences of men who have a little authority and who use it to demean and debase others. Additionally, there is no place for CSI style details in this, as the details of police work lie in the background behind the incredible story.

I really appreciated Mankell’s writing style because it didn’t get tied up in unnecessary details. He focuses on the narrative but also on the complex relationships between marriage mates and the inevitable changes that occur in friendships over time. The three prominent women are all powerful characters and do not show the typical neediness or passive aggressive tendencies that are sometimes portrayed alongside a strong will.

The only hesitation I felt in reading this was from a baffling string of terribly unlikely events that led to finding evidence and to solving elements of the crime. A few of these stretched any sense of realism away and left me disoriented, especially considering how well thought out the plot is. All in all, it’s a worthy read but requires a commitment and time to absorb the details of the various time periods presented.

Special thanks to Lauren Helman of Knopf for this Advanced Readers Copy.

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