Posted by: billpurdue | February 4, 2010

85 A new one from Henning Mankell

I have just finished reading the new Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing [Harvill Secker £17.99 978-1846552571]. It’s the first one by Mankell that I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It isn’t a Wallander novel, but it is a detective novel of a kind. The book starts off like a “conventional crime novel” (if there is such a thing) with a horrific murder involving no less than 19 victims all living in one tiny hamlet in Sweden. I did wonder if Mankell had gone over the top here, but it isn’t until much later on in the book that the reason why there are so many dead bodies becomes clear.

On hearing about the murders, Judge Birgitta Roslin realises that she is distantly related to one of the families involved and, independently of the local police in charge of the case, begins to make her own investigations. She travels from her home in Helsingborg to the small village to make some enquiries for herself. Just as it seems that she might be uncovering a vague Chinese connection, the narrative takes us back in time to China in the nineteenth century, when three brothers, peasants in a remote village, set out to walk to Canton where they hope to find work. When they arrive their hopes are dashed and they are tricked into joining a ship which takes them to America where they are used as slave labour to help build a railroad.

Slowly the connection between events in the nineteenth century and the murders in 2006 becomes clear, but not before we are immersed in a web of corruption at the very highest levels of the Chinese business community, a lust for revenge that knows no limits and a power struggle between the traditional Chinese communists and those who have imperial aspirations.

Birgitta Roslin is not a detective in the sense that she is the official investigator, but the clues that she finds drive her on to make her own investigations which take her to China and Chinatown in London. At times her curiosity gets the better of her and she unwittingly exposes herself to some dangerous situations. Whilst her marriage is giving her cause for concern, she does not have the domestic problems which Wallander has. In a recent interview with Henning Mankell on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme, he reveals what was the main inspiration for the novel. Whilst he doesn’t say whether Birgitta will appear in a future novel, he does reveal that there is one more Wallander novel to come.

Just a brief mention of a science biography that I really would like to read: Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes [ HarperPress £9.99 978-0007149537] covers the period from late 18th and early 19th centuries. The text is peopled by the likes of Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Mungo Park, Humphry Davy and others.  It was shortlisted for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize which was actually won by Leviathan, or the Whale by Philip Hoare. I’m quite partial to anything about the history of science, so it may well go on my wish


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