January 15, 2013

LATE TO THE PARTY:

Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago...

by Stieg Larsson
535 pages, Quercus

Review by Pat Black

Scandi Crime is big business. Writers such as Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell are huge sellers in the English-speaking world. It reminds me of Tartan Noir, a similar scene which made stars of Scots authors Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina. Maybe I should change my name to Per Blacksson and see how we go?

The Scandinavian invasion was spearheaded by the late Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium Trilogy achieved monstrous sales and worldwide fame in the past decade. Death got in the way before he could enjoy either – bummer – but let’s have a look at what he could have won.

I’m wary of hype. This means that I sometimes get into perfectly good books, films and music several years off the pace of the rest of society… once the coast is clear. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of these people who held on for years before getting a mobile phone, or who stuck with Betamax to the bitter end. But ubiquity can be a bit of a drag, and invites prejudice.

So now I come to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The movie versions have already been made, and remade – that’s how far behind I am. I enjoyed the David Fincher film, and it’s a book that several people have told me was one of the best they’d ever read, which was a sign that maybe there was a wee bit more than hype and marketing to blame for the phenomenon.

In case you don’t know, the novel tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged Swedish journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker with a troubled past. Blomkvist is a crusading journalist in Sweden with Millennium magazine. He is contracted by rich, elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve a family mystery – the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, in the 1960s. Blomkvist, facing a prison sentence and financial ruin after libelling a corrupt businessman, has no option but to take on the job. He travels by rail to the remote fictional town of Hedestad, where the Vanger family live in a semi-reclusive enclave.

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, another story develops – that of Lisbeth Salander. A computer hacker and private investigator, the girl is a severely damaged individual owing to family problems and unpleasant experiences as a child. She dresses alternatively and lives a very unconventional life, having been institutionalised in her younger years. Despite her problems and issues, she strikes me as a unique character in commercial fiction. Salander isn’t the first fictional creation to be beset by psychological problems, but she is not defined by them. It’s hard to think of her as a victim. Although her experiences are awful, it’s heartening to see her pragmatic reactions, her strength of will. Particularly after she is raped by her legal guardian; but we’ll come to that presently.

The book starts by violating an edict which is often handed down to wannabe writers: “show, not tell”. It may be something to do with the translation, but much of the action in the early part of the book, as Blomkvist’s backstory is outlined, concerns a whole lot of telling. It seemed almost rude – a glorious two fingers extended to convention and boxed-up thinking. At one point, Blomkvist takes stock of his adventures and says, “This is almost exactly like a locked-room mystery novel. Every clue seems to lead to a dead end…”

To be fair, the “show, not tell” rule is there for your own good in the majority of cases. But it was, if you’ll pardon the expression, telling, to see such a best-selling book stuffed with it to the point where even a lummox like me starts frowning. I’d have been tempted to get the red pen out, myself.

The suspicion I have is that the public either don’t know or don’t care about such conventions, clauses, caveats, articles and restrictions in the technical business of writing novels, whether they’re just looking for a page-turner to pass the time or whether they’re keen students of the art. They respond to a good story told well. Nota bene.

It’s a long novel, with a leisurely pace. Blomkvist’s assignment in the snowy wastes, knocking on doors of Vanger family members and reading through press cuttings and box files in his lonely cottage with just a cat for company, seemed charming to me. Who wouldn’t want a little sabbatical from their normal life, playing Sherlock Holmes out in the countryside – and being well paid for it into the bargain?

Things ramp up. First of all, Salander has to extricate herself from a nasty situation when she is appointed a legal guardian who turns out to be a sadist. Salander, despite being 24, is still a ward of state owing to mental health problems. Her first counsellor is a kindly, fair-minded older man who allows her autonomy and control over her finances. When he falls ill, his successor is only happy to allow Salander some kronor if she submits to his unpleasant sexual demands. The pragmatic Salander, who always gets her own back, takes brutal, sublime revenge.

Her story is intertwined with Blomkvist’s after he discovers she has hacked into his computer, as part of a background check carried out for the Vanger family through the investigation firm she works for. Blomkvist, who has admiration for her sheer cheek as much as he is alarmed by her skills, needs a researcher to help out with the Vanger case: Salander is the perfect fit.

The puzzle draws you in – not just through the search for Harriet Vanger, but for the deeper mystery it uncovers; a series of horrific murders. These cases do not become apparent until mid-way through the book, about the same time that Salander and Blomkvist join forces. It’s here that the novel clicks into a higher gear and becomes the book all writers dream about writing: the page-turner. One that keeps you awake at night, forging on until another chapter is finished, and the one after that… And one for the road…

Scandi Crime works because of its strong contrasts, casting shadows on a seemingly enlightened part of the world. Sweden in particular is often painted as a liberal paradise, with progressive attitudes to family life, social care, education, law and order and sex all happily mingling in the same hot tub. Indeed, it’s odd that the cultural touchstones and clich├ęs Sweden boasts should all be so well-received; cool furnishing aesthetics, beautiful women, Abba, King Henrik Larsson (peace be upon him), the chef from the Muppets. They’re just about all positive.

What Stieg Larsson show us is that, just like any other country in the world, Sweden has its murderers, sadists, corporate monsters and most especially, crimes against women.

Larsson’s Blomkvist is about the same age, but he’s no Wallander. Certainly he’s a cheerier man who enjoys his life, although it seemed kind of rootless to me. Perhaps this is because he spends rather a lot of this book bonking. 

He has a very “European” relationship with Erika, his partner at Millennium. Her husband knows that they sleep together now and again, but he’s alright with it, and they all spend Christmas together.

He also cheerfully sleeps with one of the Vanger family. All it takes is a cup of coffee, a quick segue into a foot massage, and Bob’s yer mother’s brother. It’s curious that this coupling didn’t make it into the movie version – perhaps they didn’t want to paint Blomkvist as a complete dog?

I suppose Mikael is sensitive. As Salander puts it, he is undemanding, considerate and kind. After a lifetime of bastards, he would probably come across as a huge surprise, and a fine catch.

But I did have problems with Blomkvist and Salander’s inevitable sexual relationship. Inevitable, because the conventions of narrative dictate the hero and heroine should end up in bed. But in a book that strikes a deep note of realism in its dealings with damaged women, I found this troubling. Would a girl who has suffered so horribly at the hands of middle aged men in her life suddenly leap into bed with one just because he’s “nice”? I’m not convinced. If you want to read more of my thoughts on this matter, have a wee look here: http://patblack.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/the-bloke-with-the-kitten-tattoo/

On the flip side, there are Men Who Hate Women – the book’s original title in Sweden.  The chapter heads are sometimes preachy, spitting out statistics regarding the level of harassment and sexual assault Swedish women can expect in their lifetime. Not quite the figures you’d associate with a more egalitarian, highly-educated western society. The crimes that the book examines are ghastly – hinting at something altogether more monstrous, and easily recognisable, lurking behind Sweden’s glassy exterior. 

A curious parallel comes to us from another key noughties work of art from Sweden – Let The Right One In. That has another strange pairing, and paints a shadowy picture of a country which has an underpinning of sadness from its very mythology right into the present day – alcoholic fathers, people spending their time in darkness, a sense of despair in the deep winter.

Salander is a memorable avenging angel, a quite sublime character. Damaged, but a fighter; from the most troubled of backgrounds, but not dwelling on it for too long; always looking forward, not back; and a million miles ahead of her adversaries in terms of intellect. Small wonder so many people responded to her – I’d much rather young women identified with Lisbeth Salander than Bella Swan.

Mind you, that’s prejudice: I haven’t read Twilight either. Don’t be holding your breath for that one, though.

 

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