by Stieg Larsson
569 pages, Quercus
Review by Bill Kirton
My admiration for Stieg Larsson’s journalistic integrity and his determination to uncover the corruptions in Swedish society is immense, my anger that the absence of a will has left his partner with a tiny slice of his now enormous income still burns; I only wish his editor had been more strict with him when it came to his novels. My opinions aren’t going to make a blind bit of difference to anything, and writing a review of a Larsson novel is like using a feather to pleasure or torment an elephant, but the phenomenon of his Millennium Trilogy, of which this is the middle unit, invites critical analysis. (There are no parallels with the phenomenon which is Dan Brown, because Stieg Larsson can both create credible characters and write.)
The great Elmore Leonard offers 10 ‘rules’ for writers. Numbers 8-10 are:
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Larsson ignores all of them. His plotting is immaculate, the research he’s done into computer hacking and other manipulations of technology is thorough and his use of it is clever and comprehensible even to a luddite like me. His psychology is sound and, while some of the characters he creates are a bit caricatural, the majority are believable. His heroine (if that’s still a politically correct term) is fascinating (if unlikely) and carries more of this book than she did the first.
The names proliferate and I at least had to keep checking to remind myself who some of them were, which works against any narrative pace that’s being generated.
He also seems to need to recap narrative segments which have already been spelled out in (too much) detail. Sometimes these recaps take the form of conversations in which one character ‘explains’ to another a sequence of events – all of which gives the feeling that it’s a crude piece of exposition.
He has little stylistic lapses that make you aware of his use of words which, once again, draws your attention away from the story. A trivial example of this is when he writes that Blomqwist ‘was so insistent that the nurse in charge called Dr Sivarnandan, who apparently lived nearby.’ What’s that ‘apparently’ doing there? What purpose does it serve?
He doesn’t mind using clichés, as in: ‘They should have been back by now. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach: something was wrong.’
But it’s his love of accumulating detail that’s most intrusive. Characters go to the fridge and he describes the contents before letting them choose a couple of items, walk back to the table and eat them. I opened the book at random to find an example and, first time, I read: ‘she went and sat in the car and smoked three cigarettes while she waited. At 11 o’clock she went to the front desk. She was told to go to the dining hall, down the corridor to the right and then to the left.’ I know that detail – the things Stendhal called ‘petits faits vrais’ – adds authenticity. (The song Ode to Billy Joe is a classic example of the brilliance and effectiveness of the technique: Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas ’Billy Joe never had a lick o’ sense. Pass the biscuits please.’) But the sheer weight of it in these pages anchors the narrative, overwhelms the reader and leads to him/her flicking over paragraphs such as:
‘Salander was dressed in a pair of thin, worn jeans that had a rip beneath one back pocket where the blue of her knickers showed through. She had on a T-shirt and a warm polo-neck sweater with a seam that had started to fray at the neck. She had also rediscovered her scuffed leather jacket with the rivets on the shoulders, and decided she should ask a tailor to repair the almost non-existent lining in the pockets. She was wearing heavy socks and boots.’
When you get through this sort of density, the books are, in places, gripping, tense, compulsive. But after reading the first two, I’m not sure I’ll bother with the third. The Girl who Played with Fire is 569 pages long. If it had been reduced by a third, or even more, it would have lost nothing and would have been a far better book.