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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.
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While this novel contains occasional moments when the reader feels that the storyline is actually heading towards a reasonable conclusion, it is, on the whole, poorly designed and executed as a piece of literature. Here is a list of problems that makes this latest Mankell thriller an avoidable dog of a read:
A. The plot has too many points of development - China, Sweden, Africa, the American West;
B. The time frame is too sprawling - it covers two centuries with too many gaps in between;
C. The main characters are not very well developed; consequently, they are stock and unbelievable at times;
D. There are too many overlays in this story - a murder mystery, political intrigue, a power struggle, and life in the wildwest;
E. While Mankell attempts to keep his readers' interest throughout the story by occasionally introducing a red ribbon into the mix, this device is so insignificant as to become lost in all the extra detail of the plot;
F. The conclusion to the story is so obvious as to make the last fifty pages pointless;
G. While the big idea behind the story has some moral value - over time the oppressed invariably become the oppressors - it takes Mankell an at-times, unwieldy four hundred pages to make his point;
H. The one redeeming factor in the novel is Mankell's uncanny ability to establish the appropriate mood for his scenes such as the opening massacre scene in Sweden. At that point, I really thought he was about to embark on one creepy, apocalyptic murder thriller to cap his illustrious writing career, but then he had to go and spoil it;
I. There is too much historical filler that prevents the author from getting down to telling the real story. If it wasn't the retelling of the Cultural Revolution, it was Mugabe's escapades in Zimbabwe, or the building of the Great Central Railway in the American West;
J. While political issues surface quite often in this novel, Mankell disposes of them in a very generalized 'them vs. us' fashion. Everything seems to get conveniently reduced to the ruthlessly autocratic east (China) looking to revenge itself on a supposedly liberalized west (Sweden) through the medium of a defencelessly and hopelessly corrupt Africa. Keep in mind, I make these comments as a still loyal fan who feels somewhat compelled to critically call a good writer on what amounts to be a significant literary lapse.
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on May 25, 2010
The plot of this international crime thriller is too far flung and convoluted to appeal to all but the most diehard Henning Mankell fans. As the story slowly winds its way through 150 years and 4 continents, the reader's attention span is stretched to the limit waiting for the inevitable "aha" moment when all of the disparate plot points will be cleverly linked together. That moment never fully materializes, however, and we are left with an entirely unconvincing denouement that fails to offer a plausible motive for the horrific crimes that have taken place. It just doesn't seem the least bit feasible that someone would travel half way around the globe to murder 19 total strangers in retaliation for the alleged crimes of a long forgotten ancestor. Revenge is a dish best served cold but only if there's someone still alive who remembers the original incident. Otherwise, what's the point? My sense is that Mankell really wanted to write about the profound political and social changes taking place in China but felt that it would be more compelling to frame the discussion within the context of one of the classic crime thrillers to which his readers have become accustomed. Mixing genres like this can be a tricky business and, more often than not, produces a novel that seems to have lost its focus.
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on August 10, 2010
The discovery of nineteen gruesomely murdered people in an isolated hamlet in Sweden has police baffled. There is one clue: a red ribbon found in the snow. Most of the victims are elderly, and many share a family name. One of those family names is Andren.

Elsewhere in Sweden, Birgitta Roslin, a middle-aged judge recognises this name and believes that one of the murdered couples was her mother's foster parents. Birgitta Roslin becomes involved in the case, and finds a number of connections which she draws to the attention of the police. The police treat much of Ms Roslin's information with polite disinterest and her interest in the case, combined with a number of extraordinary coincidences led Ms Roslin - and the reader - into a complex world of events, both historical and current, and vengeance.

Events in nineteenth century China and Nevada carry the key and the action crosses the globe (Europe, China, Africa and America each feature) from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. The shifts in action are not always chronological but are clearly delineated.

For me, this novel is a curious blend of historical fiction, murder mystery and political comment. To some extent, the murder mystery is overwhelmed by the history and politics. By the midpoint of the novel, the only mystery about the murders is whether the police will actually solve the crime. The readers know who did it and why but the solving of the crime - in the novel itself - has become secondary to broader global political issues and related history.

I enjoyed the novel, the writing kept me turning pages even when elements of the story were not totally absorbing. This is a novel that ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon November 12, 2010
I had to chuckle when the lead character, Birgitta Roslin, asks "Does this story have an end?", because I was thinking the very same thing. The book starts extremely well with a horrific mass murder but soon bogs down. Historical flashbacks and travels to China meant to engage actually frustrate as pace becomes an issue. All of the component parts of the book fail to come together in the end which was disappointing as I stubbornly stuck it out. One of the least enjoyable works of fiction I have read in a long time.
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on November 19, 2013
Again, Mankell is human and the main characters commit mistakes which makes the book more interesting and keeps you glued to each page.
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