the girl, the gold watch, and everything

blue girl and dragonI haven’t read mystery fiction in a very long time but I used to be an avid reader of the genre.  My two favorite authors were Agatha Christie and John D. McDonald.   We all know what sorts of books Dame Agatha wrote; hopefully McDonald is no less familiar, since anyone who reads should know who Travis McGee is.   (I sometimes think the perfect book would somehow blend Christie and McDonald , perhaps by moving Hercule Poirot to a houseboat in Florida…)  I stopped reading mystery fiction for the same reason that I stopped reading fantasy and science fiction; most of it is just the same thing over and over again.  Every author has their “chain detective”, and while this worked for Agatha and John, these people aren’t Agatha and John, and eventually they just get repetitive and boring.

I’ve recently finished reading the third novel in Steig Larsson’s mystery/thriller series “The Millennium Trilogy” (or as I like to call it  “The Girl…” trilogy).   I picked the third one up in London; it hasn’t been published in the States yet.  These books have been very positively reviewed and reviewed in such a way that it appeared that maybe actually possibly these books would do something new for the mystery genre.  Well, yes and no.

[*warning*  There may be some spoilers below]

In the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we meet our two main protagonists.  Mikail Blomkvist is the  publisher of an independent political rag called Millennium (hence the series title).  He’s going to jail because he libeled someone in print; apparently in Sweden, where the novels take place, this is a criminal offense.   Before he serves his time he is hired by aged industrialist Henrik Vanger to find out what happened to his beloved niece Harriet.  The catch?  Sixteen year old Harriet disappeared without a trace over 40 years ago from the Vanger family’s home and has been presumed dead.   The financial incentive offered by Vanger will save Millenium from bankruptcy so Blomkvist agrees to the deal and goes off to the family’s estate, which happens to be an island.

Here is where Agatha Christie comes in.  A common plot device in her fiction was the “locked room” scenario, in which all possible suspects to a crime are somehow confined in an area (think Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None).  This scenario both limits the number of characters and heightens suspense, sometimes producing an almost claustrophobic sensation as the story unfolds.  Agatha Christie did amazing things with this simple idea.   The central mystery in Dragon Tattoo occurs in just such a closed environment; at the time of Harriet’s disappearance no one could access or leave the family estate so the number of suspects is quite limited.   This being Sweden, a small country where people apparently don’t move around much, most of them are still local and accessible.

When Blomkvist decides to hire a researcher to help him look into the incredibly complicated Vanger family history we meet the other main character in the books, Lisbeth Salander.  Lisbeth is the reason for all the hype about these books. Apparently she is something novel and interesting in the world of mystery fiction.  Lisbeth is young, tiny, unconventional, independent, possessed of a photographic memory, a master hacker, intellectually brilliant, sexually eclectic, possibly mentally ill, and interestingly  pierced and tattooed.   She is utterly unconcerned with other people, having learned quite young that absolutely no one can be trusted.   She’s not very likable and she really doesn’t care what you think about her.  And this is where John D. McDonald comes in.  Not because Liz is anything like Travis McGee but because any mystery writer worth the name would kill to have created a character like him, one who lives and breathes on the page and is more than just words.  Travis  had his idiosyncracies; he only took cases when he wanted to and only then when the client had no other alternatives.   He  was amazingly introspective; the books are an elegy for a vanishing Florida and McGee sees himself as a shabby hero in the increasingly melancholic mysteries in which he becomes involved.  He was unique without being quirky and he evolved and grew over the series (which lasted 20 years).   Is Liz Salander that sort of character?  It is hard to say.  She is definitely the most interesting thing about the books.

Once Liz and Blomkvist team up the story kicks into gear and gets interesting.   The two open a 40-year old can of worms and discover that the so-called “cold case” isn’t all that cold after all.  The denoument is a bit predictable but getting there is some  fun.  I read the next one in the series The Girl Who Played With Fire and when I found the third (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest) in a bookshop at Heathrow I picked it up.  Both were quick, entertaining reads despite being quite long and tending to meander a bit.

However.

The Swedish title of Dragon Tattoo was something like “Men Who Hate Women”, a title that would have sat on remainder tables at Borders for years.  This gives you some idea of what this book, actually all three books, is really about.   It’s not meant to be a rollicking good mystery yarn; it’s a treatise on the multitude of ways society abuses women and about how most people, even women, are OK with that and accommodate it.  Once the mystery of what happened to Harriet Vanger is solved the book slides into a not-incredibly interesting wrap-up of the libel story line.   The second two books are not really mysteries; you know exactly who the bad guys are and exactly what they  have done.  They are more thrillers in the sense that their story lines deal more with whether or not evil will be thwarted and how.

Are the books any good?  I didn’t think they were fabulous, but they didn’t suck.  I did finish them all.   The first one is the best, primarily because of the central mystery story.   While it deals with the Harriet story line it moves at a good clip and is hard to put down.  Mostly though, the writing is generally stiff and sometimes oddly detailed.  Larsson has some weird fetish thing going on with technology and spends a considerable amount of ink describing every piece of electronic gear Liz Salander owns, even down to the brand names and technical specifications.  (I mean, come on.  I know powerbooks were the new hotness in the early 2000s but I have one and they aren’t all that. And do I need to know every time he mentions her PDA that it’s a Palm Tungsten?).    The second and third books are fairly predictable and not incredibly suspenseful; however, as in-depth explorations of how an entire system can be brought to bear on the destruction of a single innocent individual they are surprisingly powerful.  In this case the joy in reading comes not from mystery or suspense but in watching the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

The characters are generally not very well developed.   Most of the men are pigs and the rest are stereotypes (the kindly grandfather figure of Liz’s former guardian for example).  It doesn’t take much to figure out that Blomkvist=Larsson (who published an independent magazine, had an unconventional social life, and was a prominent anti-Nazi crusader).   Blomkvist is basically Larsson basking in his own liberal–and liberated–fabulousness and women just fall all over him.  He sleeps with nearly every woman in the books and everyone (mostly) is very adult about it all.   (Most of the sex is off-page, but there is one brutal and graphically described rape scene–so you are warned.)   In fact, the women in the books, with the exception of Liz, appear to exist mostly to reflect Blomkvist back at himself and justify his own sense of being a great guy.  (Yeah, I found him self-serving and insufferable.  Does it show?)

Larsson’s inability to create three dimensional characters actually works in Lisbeth Salander’s case.  She is supposed to be a cipher.   Liz has been abused by nearly everyone in her life for nearly her entire life.  Even the state has abused her, labeling her mentally ill and incompetent to care for herself, first incarcerating her and then saddling her with a vicious guardian.  And her response to this has been to wall herself off from people nearly entirely, taking from them only what she needs and without any reference at all to their needs or desires.   She is suspicious of everyone and decidedly unfriendly.  She’s not in the least bit impressed with Blomkvist’s attempts to help her and keeps to her own agenda of self-preservation throughout.   That this tangentially ends up saving Blomkvist’s butt is a nice touch.  Larsson plays around a bit with the idea that Liz has Asperger Syndrome but eventually abandons this in favor of her merely being an extraordinarily unconventional woman whose very existence challenges everyone she meets.  This is actually the tougher choice as far as character development goes; giving one’s character a psychiatric disorder to explain her eccentricities is easier than making them believable as survival strategies in a world that has been nothing but brutal.  Liz Salander is a victim but she is a victim who has reclaimed her life on her own terms.   And she really doesn’t care what you think about it.

The only real missteps he makes with her is that she is a little too much.  She’s a member of hacker nation and Larsson apparently believes that hackers can do anything, and so several important plot developments in the books depend on the omnipotence of her network of hacker friends.  She can apparently read and understand anything; at one point she proves Fermat’s Last Theorem (we are told a novel solution unrelated to the one published only a few years before Larsson wrote the book) and by the third book she is delving into theoretical genetics.   For an in-your-face antisocial bitch she has a surprisingly large number of loyal friends, all of whom more or less drop whatever they are doing to help her.  It eventually becomes a little unbelievable.  Larsson does manage to avoid compromising her integrity and by the end of the third book she has matured as an individual without giving an inch to either her adversaries or her friends.  She insists that people accept her on her terms and they do.

By the second and third books Liz Salander’s story has become the central narrative of the series.  The story arc of Liz’s  past was mostly resolved by the third book and she and  Blomkvist were clearly about to go on more adventures, but we’ll never know what happens to them.   Stieg Larsson died in 2004 with only three of his planned 10 novels completed.

It’s too bad.  I would love to know what Travis McGee would have thought of her.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on February 25, 2010.

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