Swedish mystery, compelling read

2010-08-04 00:00

NO aficionado should miss this latest crime novel from the peerless Henning­ Mankell. The best way to read it, I think, is to gobble it fast, and then set it aside for a while before taking it up again. The first read dazzles. The second allows time for marvelling at the author’s skill, his ability to delineate character, to plot, and to draw diverse material together to make a thoroughly satisfying (if alarming) whole.

The book opens in midwinter, in a tiny hamlet in northern Sweden, where it’s discovered that most of the inhabitants have been systematically butchered: a crime unprecedented in Swedish history. When Judge Birgitta Roslin reads of the massacre she realises that she has a family connection to one of the murdered couples, and decides to investigate. A 19th-century diary and a red silk ribbon found at the scene are her only­ clues.

The investigation is a useful distraction from health problems that have put her on sick leave, and from her once solid and happy marriage that now seems to be in a state of disrepair. And her probing takes her — and us — back to the 19th century and to the desperately poor Chinese forced to travel to the United States and to work in horrible conditions on the developing railroad system. One stony-hearted Swede, an ancestor of Roslin’s (and of many of the murder victims), has left a journal detailing some of the horrors, while one of the Chinese who suffered his brutality eventually was able to set down his memories also.

The Chinese connection is too strong for Roslin to ignore, and when she gets the opportunity to accompany an academic friend on a trip to Beijing, she takes it and, unwittingly and indirectly­, encounters an obsessively vengeful descendant of the Chinese diarist.

The weaving together of the threads from past to present makes a powerfully compelling detective story on its own, but Mankell adds a somewhat unnerving international political element in the form of what he ob- viously sees as the threat, already partly realised, of massive Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa.

Can it be true? Does he know what he’s writing about? One has the very nasty feeling, in view of the fact that he visits Mozambique annually­ and is actively involved in various welfare projects there, that he does, and that southern Africans ignore the prospect at their peril.

A splendid thriller, gripping, suspenseful, believable.

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