Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Case of Grand Larsson

Pardon me if I seem a bit dazed, but I just came away from reading an amazing crime novel called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. It’s a huge, 500-plus-page opus, a multilayered, multi-character tale by a writer of some considerable power. Full of social conscience and compassion, with great insight into the nature of moral corruption, Tattoo just knocked me out. During the time I had my nose stuck in its pages, I was thoroughly consumed by the work, and in those periods when I had to put the book down, I found myself grumpy and anxious to return to Larsson’s narrative. I read the novel in two sittings, with the final stint a five-hour marathon of arm-strain and strong coffee that took me into the very early hours of the morning. And when I finally put the book down, I was still unable to sleep, my head filled with the high-definition world that this author has crafted, and which Reg Keeland translated from the Swedish language. On the one hand, this book drained me emotionally; but it also filled me with emotion.

The new year hasn’t even begun yet, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t scheduled for its British release, by upstart publisher Quercus, until January 10 (with Vintage planning a U.S. edition for next fall); but already I’m thinking this could be remembered as the best crime novel of 2008.

What’s most interesting about Tattoo is the vast array of characters with which Larsson populates it. Captivating, as well, is the unfamiliar landscape against which this yarn unravels to its unexpected and chilling conclusion. The two principal characters here are a disgraced journalist and publisher, Mikael Blomkvist, 43, and his 24-year-old partner, the enigmatic and deeply troubled Lisbeth Salander. In the spirit of the approaching year, let me make a prediction: This pair will soon join the pantheon of great crime-fiction protagonists.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo finds Blomkvist being hired by wealthy 82-year-old Henrik Vanger, a former corporate exec, to determine whatever became of Harriet, his brother’s teenage granddaughter, who vanished four decades ago from a family reunion being held on the Vangers’ private and secluded island. No corpse was found. No witnesses came forward. And no evidence of Harriet’s fate ever turned up. Her disappearance is a complete mystery; nonetheless, Vanger believes the girl was murdered by a member of his own clan. Blomkvist, in a bad odor since losing a libel defense against a Swedish industrialist, and seeing Millennium--the magazine he publishes--suffer as a result, decides to take this case on. His incentives? Vanger’s offer of financial assistance and his suggestion that he has proof of the smugly victorious industrialist’s corruption.

So begins this twisted tale of family secrets, dastardly motives, and compassion that transports Blomkvist and Salander from a desolate Swedish island during a frigid winter, to London and then on to Australia. It isn’t long before both characters find themselves as much the hunted as they are the hunters, and it will demand all of their combined skills to untangle themselves from the wickedness imbuing the events that have shaped the Vanger clan.

Larsson’s fondness for crime fiction is evident in the fact that his chief investigator, Blomkvist, reads the works of Sue Grafton, Val McDermid, and Elizabeth George. And he flavors this story with elements quite familiar from mystery’s various subgenres--a bit of courtroom drama here, suggestions of private-eye conventions there, plus techno-thriller intrigue involving Lisbeth Salander’s electronic skills and contacts in the computer-hacking community. Finally, what would a crime novel be without serial killing and horrific torture? (The most blatant nod to this genre’s heritage is directed at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, which did not surprise me, as Larsson’s work contains some very strong female characters; Lisbeth Salander, in fact, is one of the most original creations in the genre since Clarice Starling.) Fortunately, this author tries to hone a fresh edge on these traditions of crime fiction, and blends them in a way that is as mesmerizing as it is insightful.

Moved as I was by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I did a bit of research about its author. Stieg Larsson was a name familiar to me, though not from crime fiction. I had come across his writing through my interest in totalitarianism and extremism as it has shown up in human history. Human nature at the extremes is cause for concern, and we need people to watch those extremes. I think the Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke was spot-on when he said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Larsson, it seems, fought evil all his life by monitoring right-wing extremist groups in his native Sweden, as well as throughout Europe. I first read his work in Searchlight, a British periodical devoted to monitoring the politics of the radical right, particularly the neo-Nazi movement. I knew he had passed away in late 2004, at age 50, due to a massive heart attack. What I didn’t know then was that this very shy and reserved journalist was also a crime-fiction enthusiast, and to amuse himself he often wrote his fiction late into the evenings. Friends and colleagues, when they discovered that he penned tales of crime and intrigue, were amused and amazed, since he was tireless in his reporting as well as his devotion to exposing the sinister shadow cast across Europe by right-wing extremists (a passion that led to his life being threatened). How did he ever find the time to compose novels?

In the Larsson obituary he wrote for Searchlight, the magazine’s European editor, Graeme Atkinson, wrote that
He will be terribly missed by all who had the unforgettable privilege of knowing him, working with him and being one of his friends and comrades.

Stieg managed to pack a vast amount of experience into his all-too-short 50 years, beginning with his poor upbringing in the forests of northern Sweden. His horizons were unlimited and, after enthusiastically doing military service, he travelled widely in Africa, witnessing bloody civil war in Eritrea at first hand.

On his return to Sweden, he took up his profession of journalism, working as a news journalist, feature writer and brilliant graphics artist for the Swedish news agency TT. To his work he brought a razor sharp mind, and covered every major world news story as it broke and unfolded for almost two decades. His artistic abilities extended into the realms of painting and layout. ...

It is an alarming irony that Stieg was taken from us just as he achieved his greatest ambitions: the consolidation of Expo [and anti-fascist magazine he co-founded) and the development of its staff, and the publication of his crime novels--he had just signed a major contract to have a series of novels published. Those who read them will see Stieg’s integrity, fearlessness and sense of justice in his young heroine, Lisbeth Salander, though her ways of putting things right are a far cry from Stieg’s thoughtful and gentle manner.
Given my own reaction to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the book is already being turned into a film (planned for release in 2009). Disappointing, however, is the realization that Larsson produced only two more novels in his “Millennium Trilogy”: Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) and Luftslottet som sprängdes (Castles in the Sky). Quercus plans to publish both of those latter novels in Britain.

If my own endorsement of Stieg Larsson’s work isn’t enough, consider the words of Christopher MacLehose, who manages Quercus’ new imprint, MacLehose Press:
Over time I have published David Morrell’s First Blood, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Peter Hoëg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow [aka Smilla’s Sense of Snow], and the Gold Dagger-winning crime novels of Henning Mankell, Arnaulder Indridason, and Fred Vargas. The sales of the Millennium Trilogy in Sweden far exceeded the fabulous successes of these wonderful storytellers and their central characters ... Every Swedish publisher I have met in the last months has been--and this is as interesting as it is unusual in the jealous world that is publishing--unstinting in their praise for the novels as every one of them has read them or listened to the tapes. There is no more reliable recommendation.
This book shows how exhilarating crime fiction can be. Look for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--which already won the Crime Writers of Scandinavia’s Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel of 2005--to make a mark on international award nominations for 2008.

12 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

Ali,

Hope it's as good as you say. Just ordered it from England.

Ali Karim said...

Hi Keith -

Trust me, it is that good, an amazing book, completely captivated me -

Let me know what you think

Ali

Craig said...

I think you've sold me on this, too (just came here from Rara-Avis). Sounds great and I've ordered a copy from AmazonUK.

fiona said...

completely with ali on this one - an amazing read

Levi Stahl said...

You sold me. I just ordered a copy from the UK.

Marcus Sakey said...

Hard to argue with that. I'll order a copy now.

And happy holidays, Ali!

Lourdes said...

If there's one book I MUST read next year, this will be it. Fantastic review!

INJUREDMOOSE said...

You can take it from the horses mouth, and nearly 1 in 4 Swedes. Personally I hadn't read a book in 20 years. A friend who never read either--are you getting the picture yet?"--Told me I had to read Stieg Larssons books or he would kick me.
The books are awesome in every way. Everything you have ever read or will ever read again will fall short in some way or other in comparison. My interest in reading was revived, but so typical that I should read such landmark books. I’m reading Sydney Sheldon at the moment, and its like reading a short story out of a magazine for teenage girls in comparison. I read all three books in 2-3 weeks, the first one is 550 pages nr II is 625 and the last one over 700. There is no unnecessary stuffing in Stiegs books, they are kick ass exciting from beginning to end, as well as highly educational. Stieg even pulls off describing the simplest things in life as if they where the most important. Everybody in Sweden was devastated when he died.

There are a few negatives, some longwinded passages where he excels in teaching the reader about the technical specs of outdated laptops. But his narrative is superb and he even makes the very few surplus pages interesting. Read these books like eating a 300-dollar lobster. You will go nuts when they are finished, you will feel betrayed when you read other books whilst waiting for the second and 3rd part. Believe me, the publishers will make you suffer. Larsson delivered all 3 scripts simultaneously and they where released in Sweden 2005 2006 2007. Well, they have to sell books right. These books will create a Harry Potter style syndrome as soon as the buzz hits and the grape vine starts working. Stiegs books inspired me to start writing myself. I’m now working on my 3rd book. Amazingly the very same friend who ordered me to read Larssons books called med a few weeks back and said…
-Hey R, do ya have some more?
-Some more what J?
-Ya know that excerpt you translated to Swedish for me, 50 pages, I read it.
-Oh right, I’d forgotten—holding my breath expecting the worst kind of review—
-##¤%¤# maan!
-Yeah…##¤%¤# what?? Heart beating faster and faster.
-It can’t be like this all the time.
-What do ya mean?
-Like it’s insane, stuffs goin on all the time, like action, suspense, I saw the places man, it was cool, like where the hell did ya come up with than Bill Ericsson fella who bums around in the Bocca Grande aria, where does he fit into the Scenes from Sweden and London? You gotta translate some more for me man, shit, I gotta tell ya, it was the most interesting shit I read since Larsson’s books.
-Have you read anything since then?
-Well…eh, the morning papers.
-Well, you really made my day mate, that means the world to me, it really does. He really was sincere, and he was hooked, I managed to hook him like hell on 50 pages. Although I await further scrutiny from friends and not so friends, I am surely optimistic. Need I say that I wrote another 20-30 pages that very same day. This illustrated the importance of force feeding excerpts to friends and family.
No, none of my books are sent to publishers yet, there’s a lot of work left, re writing, editing and paying a professional editor to run through them before I even consider sending to Publishers. There are no similarities to Larsson’s stories other than it’s a trilogy and trying to replicate his easy going upbeat narrative to my own stories. The girl in Larsson’s books--Lisbeth Salander--really comes into her own in the second book. She is surely the most complex and extensively crafted character ever put on paper. So Stieg, from you heaven, thanks for the inspiration, I haven’t had this much fun in life for 10 years. I really believe I will be published if not sooner, then later. I was practically illiterate 1 year ago. Thanks to Stiegs books, I have spent 4-8 hors a day researching, writing, reading books, learning re-learning grammar aso. My brain has woken up from the dead. I’m going to re-read all three books shortly for educational reasons. I can only improve by reading these fabulous books.
Swedish Titles
1. Män som hatar kvinnor
2. Flickan som lekte med elden
3. Luftslottet som sprängdes

Anna-Maja said...

I am very proud that you seem to love this book so much, I never knew Swedish litterature could hit outside Sweden.
I've read them all, and I am not into crime literature at all, but I have too say: These books are awsome! I feel sorry for you to have to wait for the other two, but it's worth the waiting.

Greetings from Sweden
('tis really too much snow here now)

/Anna-Maja (air_virgo@hotmail.com)

olivia said...

I just came back from a weekend in Paris where "le tout Paris" is engulfed in reading the Millenium trilogy--all three books published by Actes Sud are out. A friend gave me the three volumes and I haven't been able to put them down. I understood her comment that she had a hard time at work because all she wanted to do was curl up in a chair and read. Lisbeth Salander is an awesome character. I am now on the third and last volume which has a funny title in French: The Queen in the Palace of drafts. So if you read in French as well as English you can order the Millenium trilogy on Amazon.fr

Marilyn said...

This book is everything Ali says it is. I started it last Saturday, got a bit bogged down at the beginning with financial intricacies (boring to me, fascinating to others, I'm sure), and wondered if I'd finish it. Ha! I finished it that same day - I could not stop reading. Lisbeth Salander is a fantastic creation, and offset perfectly by Mikael Blomqvist's more staid (but only relatively) personality.

I liked the book so much I have pre-ordered the British edition of the next one - can't wait for the U.S. edition.

rebecca said...

In America the third novel is being named The Girl In the Hornet's Nest