Four Books: Child, Mankell, MacDonald, and Schlink

I’m getting caught up with mini-reviews of some books I read during the latter months of 2011.

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child (2008)
This is the 12th book starring hard-guy Jack Reacher (and the 4th Reacher book I’ve read this year). It takes place in the Colorado towns of Hope and Despair, located 12 miles apart. Reacher wanders into Despair and gets all kinds of guff when he merely tries to buy a cup of coffee. He ends up back in Hope, where he teams up with a woman deputy to unravel the diabolical goings-on in Despair.

This was one of my favorite Reacher books. The conspiracy at the heart of Depair is nothing particularly compelling, but everything around it is. Reacher just throws himself into situations and creates havoc. Plus, it reminded me of the first Reacher book I read, “Echo Burning.” Both books involve Reacher wandering innocently into a town and getting embroiled in a Big Messy Situation which demands his tough guyness.

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell (2011)
I cannot over-emphasize how disappinting this book was. It started out great: nearly everyone in a small village in cold and snowy northern Sweden is massacred, a hideous scene. A woman deputy is introduced, then a woman with a connection to some of the victims. Then Mankell takes us back to a the American West, where some Chinese immigrants find themselves serving as slave laborers on the continental railroad. I was fully engrossed.

But I don’t think Mankell really thought through where he wanted to take the book. Soon, the woman deputy becomes a disagreeable caricature, and the other woman, now suddenly the central protagonist, ends up pursuing clues to Beijing. Before long, we’re in Africa, then back to Sweden, then England. It’s just a mess.

Mankell, normally one of my favorite writers, basically indulged in building a story to affirm some personal anti-Chinese political opinions, and it just fell flat. When the whole thing wraps up, there is one glaring inconsistency–a major, major one involving the identity of the killer–involving a photograph which I can in no way resolve. Maybe something was lost in translation. But more to the point, if anything was lost, it was lost in the writing. I hope Mankell got these political obsessions off his chest. I just wish he hadn’t dragged me along.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross MacDonald (1996)
MacDonald, in my book, is the heir–or at least the first heir–to the Raymond Chandler legacy. His guy, Lew Archer, is more interesting, to me, than Phillip Marlowe (though not as funny). But this is the worst MacDonald book I’ve read. I struggled to get through the last 100 pages, and came close to just quitting. It never, for a minute, grabbed my interest. But that won’t stop me from reading more MacDonald books, because he’s normally reliable.

The Gordion Knot, by Bernhard Schlink (2010)
This is a strange little character-driven spy novel, which starts in Germany but spends most of its pages in New York City. This is the second book I’ve read by this German mystery writer, and I didn’t really care for either of them. Why did Black Lizard sign this guy?

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