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Saturday, 18 August 2012

Book review: Kennedy's Brain, Henning Mankell (2007)

I occasionally read Mankell because I'm a fan of the series of TV remakes - both the British version with Kenneth Branagh, and the possibly-even-better Swedish version with Krister Henriksson - of Mankell's Wallander crime novels. I like crime thrillers and Mankell delivers the goods reliably although he appreciably falls short of the level of interest the as-yet-unsurpassed Stieg Larsson generates for me. Larsson's Millennium series of novels were cinematised, again locally in Sweden and, later, in the US. Where Larsson was a died-in-the-wool political progressive, even a hard-nosed activist at some deep level, and this character trait deeply colours everything he invents for use in his fiction, Mankell seems to me to just be a regular sort of guy who for some reason is able to write genre fiction.

Those who have not yet read Kennedy's Brain and who wish to do so without spoilers should be aware that this review reveals plot elements.

The story opens in Greece where Louise Cantor, a fifty-something archaeologist, is on a dig but has to go back home to Sweden to deliver a conference paper. In Sweden, she discovers her son dead in his bed. The police say it's not suspicious, and toxicology reports later will reveal the presence of barbiturates in Henrik's blood, suggesting an overdose of sleeping pills. But Louise is not convinced there was no foul play. The first person she collars to question about Henrik is a girlfriend, Nazrin, who appears one day at Henrik's apartment. The first weakness in Mankell's plot is here. Nazrin, though introduced in full at this early stage in the novel, will pretty much disappear down the track. Which is a shame, as Nazrin could have provided more interest for the reader. Unfortunately, Mankell is busy in Mozambique by the novel's later stages and he makes no further use of her.

Louise's first thought is to contact Henrik's biological father, Aron, who is living somewhere in the world. A bit of a gadfly, Aron is run to earth in southeast Australia. To find him, Louise merely jets to Sydney and goes to eat in an Italian restaurant located near the Opera House. She overhears a man at a neighbouring table speaking in Swedish. She talks to him and he offers to track Aron down. The next day he calls her and tells her Aron is living in Apollo Bay. She flies to Melbourne, hires a car, and drives out west of the city to the town where she finds Aron fishing on the pier. It's all a bit simple, really, but I guess Swedes will be open to such shifty handling of a country as far away and exotic as Australia. Stieg Larsson also used Australia in his novels; it seems there's something of a fascination among Scandinavians for the country. Anyway, Louise gets Aron to accompany her to Barcelona, where Henrik kept an apartment, but in Barcelona Aron disappears.

Showing formidable courage of a kind rarely met with in normal human beings, Louise then flies to Mozambique to track down Lucinda, a woman who seems to be another girlfriend. She finds her in a seedy bar in Maputo, the country's capital, where very young girls work as prostitutes. The scene provides Mankell with an opportunity to rail against fat, rich Westerners engaging in sex tourism in third-world countries. It's pretty unpleasant. But Louise, although one of her first experiences in Maputo is to be mugged and robbed, soldiers on regardless of the danger that seems to loom large everywhere in this unpredictable country. She tracks down others who knew Henrik and starts to piece together a pattern out of the evidence she elicits in conversations.

One of the most important elements of Henrik's mysterious life, one she had never suspected could exist, is that he was HIV-positive. Lucinda says initially that she is not. Later events will reveal a kind of racket operated by an elusive American businessman through a community hospice for AIDs sufferers he has established outside Maputo in a place named Xia-Xia. There is a link with an employee attached to the Swedish embassy, too, but Louise doesn't have time to dig up all the evidence against him. She tries to talk with AIDs sufferers who have been taken in at the hospice but on two occasions the person she is talking to is suddenly murdered, including poor Lucinda. The suspicion is that anti-HIV drugs are being tested on human guinea pigs at Xia-Xia. More sinister is the suspicion that AIDs was developed to eradicate blacks from Africa.

We meet some good guys on the journey as well. Lucinda's English is a little too competent to my mind but she turns out to be an intelligent and courageous woman whose attachment to Henrik was real. A journalist named Nuno da Silva appears briefly - again, it's a pity that Mankell didn't make further use of this character - and he's a man with conviction and courage who fights against the odds for what he believes in. There's also an old painter living on a small island near Maputo Louise trots off to visit on a flaky propeller-driven aeroplane. But behind all the drama there is a lurking evil, and even though there are three deaths that happen close to her Louise remains undaunted in her quest to unearth the truth about Henrik's demise.

Louise is a fantastically brave woman - possibly a tad too staunch - and the story she uncovers is worth telling, though the coup-de-grace against Big Business (or someone) is never finally run home. The novel sort of peters out at the end, with hints of future efforts to be made to bring to justice those who were responsible for the death of Louise's son, Henrik. Aside from the mercurial Aron, Henrik is probably the most interesting character in the novel, a kind of will-o-the-wisp who wants to change the world and loves a good mystery, like the story of how Kennedy's brain went missing after the successful 1963 assassination.

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