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Mankell's new international intrigue/murder mystery has already received many reviews, and most agree that it is not a great success. It starts off in a tiny town in Sweden, with the murder of most of the inhabitants: 18 old people and one boy are butchered, and the bodies are cut up and placed in humiliating poses. The police don't make much progress in their investigation, but a judge, Birgitta Roslin investigates the mystery. She in her fifties, married with two children, considering a separation from her husband. She is related to one of the murdered people, and she finds a journal in the house after the murder. The journal is from the 19th century -- one of her distant relatives wrote letters back home from America while he was in charge of workers laying railroad tracks in the west. Roslin follows other clues that lead her to China, and finally to England. A subplot tells us about one of the people Roslin meets in China, who goes on a trip to Zimbabwe and gets involved of the politics of Robert Mugabe.
So it is one of Mankell's most ambitious novels, addressing international politics, the developing world, and the effects of the past on the present. One of the main problems with the work is the unbelievability of the title character -- the power hungry man from Beijing who is behind the murders. Further, the political conspiracy in China is hard to follow, not because it relies on knowledge of Chinese politics -- it doesn't -- but because it is described in very elusive terms. It seems that one of his main goals in the novel is to highlight the increasing role of China in southern Africa, and Chinese sympathy for Robert Mugabe. The book has been interpreted as showing Mankell's own support for Mugabe, but while he does not say much about all the Mugabe has done wrong, and the characters do give defenses of the Zimbabwean president, none of the plot relies on the reader accepting what those characters say.
This is far from the first time that Mankell has brought a larger political view to his novels, but here the politics drive the plot. The sections of novel that delve into the American past are labored, and the scenes in China also lack the interest and charm of the scenes in Sweden. There the writing feels largely in the service of plot development, and it is a relief when those sections are over. It's hard to even feel much sympathy for the main character, the judge. The problems with the credibility of the plot make it comparable to a James Patterson detective novel, and not in a good way. Nevertheless the ideas here are interesting, and sections of the book are powerfully written. So it is still worth checking out of you are an enthusiast for Mankell's work.
The unabridged audiobook performed by Rosalyn Landor has strong production values; the reading is consistent and the different accents are done convincingly.
Link: Henning Mankell on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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