Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Man from Beijing

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell
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Aug 27, 2011

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Read in August, 2011

It is possible to like a book and be disappointed with it at the same time. That's the way I feel about The Man From Beijing.

The parts that work best are those when one character is being stalked by another, especially when Hong Qiu suspects that her psychopathic brother Ya Ru plans to kill her, and when the main character, Birgitta Roslin, realizes the killer is now coming for her. The mood in both sections is pretty creepy.

So the story has appeal (assuming you like the genre). But now for the drawbacks. The first, which other reviewers also pick up on, is the failure to provide motivation for Birgitta's odd behavior near the beginning, when she puts aside her day job as a judge and becomes an amateur private eye chasing clues in a gruesome murder case. Her interest in the matter is understandable, but not her tendency to run her own investigation and the way she selectively withholds her findings from the police.

Next are the multiple, extended nostalgic references to her youthful days as a naïve Maoist agitator (perhaps I too am naïve but I would expect a judge to have outgrown that sort of thing). That political bent figures in her decision to visit China, where her sleuthing continues.

Mankell provides a reasonably convincing sense of place for both Sweden and Mozambique, the two places where he spends his time, according to the biographical note (neither of which I have ever seen). He does less well with China, China's government, and his portrayals of ordinary Chinese people. My sense is that the author has had an extensive study of Mao Tse-Tung thought (which apparently he still thinks has merit) and has combined that with maybe a week's worth of personal observation of the country from within the bubble of a tour bus. Speaking as a 大鼻子 who probably can be justified in saying this, I found all these depictions to be painfully off-base. He needed a Chinese connection to make the plot work, but given his concluding note, which says that "even in a novel, the most important details ought to be correctly presented," what he came up with fails completely.

The story provided a diversion during a busy week, but I wish it had been better. It could have been better.
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