Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell

My day started out great -- sun shining and errands checked off my list -- but by mid-afternoon the, um, excrement hit the fan. Literally. Well, almost. Mischief, our dog, had a gastrointestinal upset. I discovered this when I picked him up and felt something moist on the inside of my arm. Nice, eh? This, and I had only been home ten minutes, having just finished two full hours of kid-chauffeuring during that after-school rush hour in which everyone is speeding, hurrying to get kids to gymnastics, or back home from piano lessons. Then, both my girls, deep into adolescent, estrogen-soaked, end-of-the-school-year drama vanished into their rooms, in various stages of distress. I had to call my son into action to hold the part of Mischief north of the equator while I swabbed at his (Mischief's) rear. Then my husband walked in, home from work. "How was your day?" he asked.

Sometimes things go like this: they start out great but end up completely twisted. Like "The Man From Beijing." (Such a segueway!) When I saw the title, I bit the hook. I'm not a big mystery girl, but I am hungry to learn about other cultures, and this book, written by a Swede, takes place both in Sweden and China. Just like the day of my sick dog and cranky kids, it started out great. A gruesome mass murder in a Swedish village. What could be better? Then, a middle-aged judge from a nearby town realizes she is related to one of the victims and is drawn into the case. The writing is tight. Suspenseful. But about halfway through, the plot goes way off track. The story travels again, this time from China to Africa, taking an unnecessary detour, as if to give the author a forum for a geopolitical exegesis. It was an over-reach that ruined the book. Even after suffering through that part of the story, the book as a whole never recovered.

And here lies Mankell's cardinal sin. Maybe I'm wrong, but isn't the whole premise of a mystery supposed to be that it hold us in suspense until the very end? By the time I came to the end of "The Man From Beijing," I just didn't care anymore.

Still, there's always tomorrow (thank God), and there's always the next book....

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