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Two novels in one create frustration for the reader
on March 12, 2010
This long and complex story begins following the trek of a lone wolf across the border in the deep stillness of a Swedish winter landscape. I could have read an entire novel based on this wolf's travels, so captivating is the story telling skill of Henning Mankell. Alas, this story closes when the wolf finds a small hamlet in rural Sweden only moments after a gruesome mass murder has occurred that eliminated every member of the Andren extended family. Mankell's newest police heroine, Vivi Sundberg, soon arrives on the scene. She is a formidable middle aged amazon that we instinctively trust, much the same as we instantly relax when Kurt Wallander takes charge of the situation. She makes the grisly discovery of mutilated bodies in practically every home in the town. Vivi assumes a leadership role in the investigation, in the same manner as Kurt Wallander usually does; more from a reluctance of others to do so in a void of leadership. Mankell's readers are already looking to Sundberg as a Wallander-type character but that hope is soon dashed as she demonstrates a unbelievably unimaginative aptitude for police work. This angle introduced by Mankell profiles a confusing and ultimately unresolved commentary on the Swedish judicial system but what is worse for the reader is to meet a potentially fascinating character who quickly disappoints.
Now we meet a female judge, Birgitta Roslin; a tedious character that Mankell fails to make interesting despite his tremendous success with similar unlikeable characters in his other novels. Nevertheless, Roslin has a pivotal role in the novel; she has a connection to the murders in Hesjovallen! Her mother had been fostered out to an Andren family there as a child. This tenuous link to her past tweaks her interest in the murders and, together with her unaware, yet barely concealed desire to evaluate her mid life status, sets her on the road to the hamlet. This story would be far more thrilling and believable if Roslin had a genuine familial relationship that advanced the plot but the tenuous thread fails to convince the reader. Nevertheless, the reader is so eager to get back to the original murder investigation that we are willing to accompany Roslin.
Roslin is a far better detective than Sundberg . Mankell chooses to have these two women work in exclusion of each other despite an abundance of opportunity; this diminishes the plot and further frustrates the reader. Next Mankell introduces Lars Emanuelsson, an investigative journalist, who repels Roslin with his aggression and foul personal hygiene, but who is the first potentially decisive and focused character we have met so far. The reader is engaged once again and clings to Emanuelsson in the hope that Roslin and Mankell make use of him to deepen and advance the plot. Both fail to do so.
Roslin discovers old Andren family documents that link the Swedish Andrens to a man who emigrated to build the railway in Nevada at the turn of the century. She is investigating an Andren family connection as the motive for the murders. She uncovers a similar murder of a family of Andrens in Nevada just months ago! Roslin briefly excels by conducting her own investigation that actually reveals the real murderer. When this evidence is presented to the police, they fail miserably in pursuing the leads she hands them. This would have been an excellent time for the abrasive and foul smelling Lars Emanuelsson to become involved in order to develop the plot but Mankell opts instead to introduce a second, even more complex and far less original story line into the novel as a means of connecting the characters. At the crossroads of making a real thriller out of this novel, Mankell again drops the reader in what is quickly becoming a familiar sense of disappointment.
The second third of this long novel begins with the story of 3 brothers in 18th century China and their suffering in slavery at the hands of a brutal man called "JA". This extremely drawn out story line side tracks merely to introduce the JA character and his impact on the Chinese brothers. It takes too much time to tell and is not very interesting to boot, especially when it fails to clearly connect to the present. The reader becomes more distanced from the original story line and is further frustrated.
We are then introduced to Ya Ru, a Chinese megalomaniac of wealth and power in present day China. He is a political `facilitator" and behind a plot to rid China of its millions of poor while leveraging control over an African country that is a rich source of raw materials for China's manufacturing industries. We also meet his sister Hong Qui, a modern but conservative political force who opposes her brother's goals, but even she cannot imagine how vast they are. Ya Ru's story includes his intermittent readings from the journal of his ancestor, the only surviving brother who so suffered at the hands of the railroad boss "JA". We begin to suspect the possible connection to the Sweden and Nevada murders, however, because of the century plus interval and the current political intrigue in China, this theme is all but obscured for the reader. Mankell tries to connect the Roslin/Andren family to this powerful Chinese family in the present as well, but his efforts are transparent and not convincing. It does build suspense but at the cost of the better story which is the Swedish murder mystery. The China story is well worth its own novel and both stories would have been better told if done separately.
This novel began with terrific promise and a great investigative story. The reader was dropped too many times however and soon begins to feel taken advantage of. The characters with promise were born and died in a breath while the indulgent characters went on forever. There were too many unnecessary characters and in the end, Roslin was simply lucky, not smart, to have survived. For diehard fans of Mankell, this book was endured with renewable anticipation and loyalty but was a frustrating and disappointing read.