Henning Mankell’s latest novel could have just as easily been called The Judge from Sweden or The Brothers Who Travelled the Globe to Escape Oppression. But, The Man from Beijing, the chosen title, works well, too. The three main plots in this mini-epic take place in several countries and two very different centuries. Whether or not you will enjoy this book depends upon if you believe life is about the journey or the destination.
The novel begins with a grand and gruesome mass murder in a little village in northern Sweden. A female judge in another town is especially interested in this crime since it took place where her foster parents once lived. A visit to the scene allows Her Honor to put on a sleuth hat, and she quickly finds a connection between the horrific homicides and a man from Beijing.
Though the set-up of this could have been an engrossing police procedural by itself, the reader is suddenly transported back in time more than 100 years and into an entirely different plot about three Chinese peasants (brothers) who seek a better life as they hightail it out of their remote hamlet. For the brothers, the grass is not always greener. They find themselves in even harsher conditions in the alleys of Canton, the desert of Nevada, even the streets of New York. Over time, two of the three brothers die, and the surviving member of the family returns to China to help a group of Swedish missionaries hoping to convert the locals to Christianity.
This second, lengthy plot connects China to the crime in Sweden. A third (also lengthy) plot becomes the missing link to the tale providing the means and motive to the multiple murders.
The author is very methodical about placing the dots and then connecting them. Though there are some thrilling moments along the way, the revelation of these connections that answer the who, what, where, why and how, occurs about 100 pages before the book ends. There is no surprise ending. The journey, in this case, trumps the destination.
Pros: Great character development and narrative storytelling; the three main plots could easily stand alone
Cons: Lack of dialog means some slow passages; the ‘mystery’ is solved relatively early; though characters are fully developed, there is nothing likeable or even remotely sympathetic about the book’s ‘bad guy’
Bottom line: The recipe is good, the ingredients are fresh, but the final product leaves a bad taste in your mouth.