Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Man from Beijing

The latest mystery book I've read in my 'world tour' is The Man from Beijing, whose locales range over four continents.  The novel starts with a horrific, unprecedented mass murder of 19 people in a Swedish hamlet, all named Andrens or related to Andrens.  Intrigued and shocked when she reads the newspaper reports about the crime, Judge Birgitta Roslin’s recognizes Andren as the name as her mother’s foster parents.  She heads off to the village to learn more and reads a family diary which leads her to form a contrarian view of the cause of the murders.

The diary reveals a brutal and racist ancestor who was a foreman of Chinese work crews during the construction of the American transcontinental railway.  The link to China is reinforced when Roslin discovers that a red ribbon found near the scene is from a lamp in a Chinese restaurant in a nearby town.  Further, she nails down that the ribbon was cut away on exactly the night before the massacre, and that a Chinese stranger happened to eat there that night, never to be seen again.  Except in a fuzzy picture from the security camera of a nearby hotel.  

Roslin, off work due to a medical condition, joins a friend  going to China for a conference.  She and Roslin were student radicals and believers in Mao’s Little Red Book.  Walks around Beijing arouse musings on the China she supported in her youth compared with the bustling capitalistic society she finds in the 21st Century.   Showing the security-camera photo of the unidentified Chinese man brings her to the attention of the authorities, and links the story to a wealthy Chinese industrialist Yu Ra.  

Yu Ra believes that the solution to China’s overcrowding is to trade investment and infrastructure for the right to resettle Chinese peasants.  Mankell lives in Mozambique, and believes the scenario of Chinese colonialism is very real.   Mankell says that a deal to rent land in Kenya for one million Chinese peasants has already been consummated.  Ya Ru is resisted intensely by his sister who believes in China’s hard-fought struggle to escape colonialism and worries about China’s descent into colonialism itself.

As a mystery, this book had something lacking.  Firstly there were simply too many coincidences.  You’ve probably noticed them:  Roslin’s convenient time off work, her friend’s fortuitous trip to China, the killer clipping the lamp ribbon and dropping it at the scene.  There was also a rather unsatisfying ending, although I must say that mysteries with clear-cut endings seem to be going out of style.  However, the characterization, especially of Birgitta Roslin, was great.   And touring vicariously around China and Mozambique, and getting a taste of history and history-in-the-making was thoroughly enjoyable.  I’ve been meaning to read Mankell’s series about the detective Wallenberg (now on TV with Kennth Branaugh in the starring role) and this has certainly increased my motivation.

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