Read in July 2013
The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell
As a crime novel, this book is a real stinker. Mankell apparently intends it as a fictional polemic and employs a Scandinavian variation on the Hollywood stereotype of the “wily Chinese.” As fiction and as politics, the book fails to persuade. The story opens with a terrible crime — the slaughter and dismemberment of 19 people in a tiny and remote village in northern Sweden. The central character is Judge Birgitta Roslin, who realizes that her mother grew up in the village as the foster daughter of two of the victims. Ordered by her doctor to take time off from work and unhappy with the estrangement in her longtime marriage, Roslin heads north and tries to insinuate herself into the investigation, embarking on an investigation of her own that seems to show connections to a recent visitor from Chinese and a recent slasher murder of a family in Nevada. Roslin goes so far as to break into the crime scene and steal some letters and diaries from a desk drawer. SPOILER ALERT. The next part of the novel is a diary written by a Chinese man about his experiences as a peasant in the 1850s who was tricked into indentured servitude in Canton, transported to work on the railroad in the U. S., endured torture at the hands of a brutal Swedish overseer, and eventually made his way back to China with the help of two Swedish missionaries who ultimately betrayed him as well. The diary is now in the hands of his modern-day descendant, one of the new Chinese billionaires who is bent on revenge. Back in Sweden, Judge Roslin is still on the case, despite the fact that the police have arrested a man who confessed to the murders before killing himself in jail. Among her clues is a photograph of a Chinese guest taken from a hotel surveillance camera and a Chinese magazine bearing the handwritten address of a Beijing hotel, both of which she carries with her to Beijing when she fortuitously joins an old school chum on a trip to China. While the judge’s pal is occupied with a conference on Chinese history, Roslin goes off in search of the man in her photograph and winds up mugged, with her purse stolen and hotel room searched. Who should ride to the rescue but the sister of the Chinese billionaire, a party functionary who is greatly disturbed by rebirth of a new mandarin class of capitalists. After sending Judge Roslin back to Sweden, sister and brother both travel to Africa as part of an official delegation, and sister is disturbed to learn that her brother and Chinese authorities have hatched a plan to relocate millions of Chinese peasants to Africa, billing what she sees as simple colonialism as redevelopment aid. In Africa, the brother arranges an accident that kills his sister and the bodyguard responsible for the killings in Nevada and Sweden. But before her death, his sister entrusted a letter to a friend which detailed her worries, and so when the action moves back to Sweden, Judge Roslin finds herself approached by a mysterious Chinese woman from London who warns that her life might be in danger. When Roslin learns that the Chinese man has returned to the remote village, she heads for London, where the evil billionaire from Beijing is killed with a rifle shot to the head through the window of a London hotel just as he’s about the lace her breakfast coffee with ground glass. The shooter is the son of the dead sister who has obtained revenge for the murder of his mother. The biggest problem with this story is the wooden characters who mouth all the correct attitudes of liberal Western concern for the poor and dispossessed of the world but lack flesh, blood, and beating hearts. Judge Roslin and her friend were pro-Mao radicals in the 1960s but have nothing interesting to say about who they were then or how they found China now. The Chinese billionaire risks everything to avenge long-dead ancestors by slaughtering people several generations removed from the brutal overseer but Mankell fails to show the visceral emotions which would animate such a reprisal. The book fails as a whodunit, simply telling us the culprit. And the book fails as a polemic, tossing off a bunch of ominous predictions about China’s plans for Africa without providing any concrete evidence. It takes a talented writer to pull off a genre-bender, and Mankell clearly is not up to the task.
The Writer Who Stayed, by William Zinsser
I received this book as a gift from a writing student and enjoyed many of these short essays, which first appeared as a column in The American Scholar. The collection is organized here in topical chapters: writing craft, technology, faraway places, etc. Zinsser is a polished writer with some interesting insights, but his perspective is that of a 90-year-old mostly looking back, and as another Amazon review noted, many of his subjects are from the mid-20th century: “Daniel Fuchs… Pauline Kael, Chick Young and “Blondie”, Mitch Miller…Hall of Fame centerfielder Edd Roush, the Great American Songbook, and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.” The book may feel too dated to readers who prefer contemporary non-fiction.