Monday, March 22, 2010

The Dead Man Who Can Still Draw a Crowd

I have been very busy of late in my “real life,” and hence pretty quiet in the blogosphere. However, I’ve popped my head up long enough to share my excitement at viewing Martin Scorcese’s big-screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, and to record an interview with the BBC Culture Show having to do with my love of crime and thriller fiction, which should be televised sometime in May.

My foremost thrill of late, though, was receiving this invitation:

Being a confirmed Stieg Larsson fan, I wasn’t about to say no to the ambassador. But attending his party did present travel challenges.

I already had to be in London on Wednesday evening, the 17th, to enjoy Penguin UK’s crime-fiction cocktail party. I was compelled to leave that fête early, though, in order to catch a red-eye flight to Glasgow, Scotland, where a business meeting was being held early the next morning, Thursday. To attend the “Crimes of the Millennium” party, I then had to hop a plane back to London right after my business in Scotland was done. Fortunately, not every week is quite so busy for yours truly.

Arriving at the Swedish Embassy in Portland Place on Thursday night with only minutes to spare before the Larsson festivities commenced, I bumped into Gold Dagger Award-winning novelist Ann Cleeves, along with my fellow Shots contributor, Ayo Onatade, who arrived with Barry and Judith Forshaw. After a brief chat, they all went inside, while I stayed to greet Quercus Publishing CEO Mark Smith and his colleague Ron Beard, who had kindly invited me last year to attend a private screening of the subtitled Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I congratulated them both on the phenomenal success of Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” to which Quercus had secured the English-translation rights, after others gave it the thumbs-down. It’s no secret that, thanks in part to the Larsson books, Quercus Publishing survived one of the most dreadful economic declines to face publishing--or any other kind of business--in recent memory.

Finally stepping inside the doors of the embassy, I was astounded to see the elbow-to-elbow turnout of people. Among them of course was a beaming Christopher MacLehose, under whose Quercus imprint, MacLehose Press, the three Larsson thrillers were first published in English. It was good to mingle with Selina Walker of Transworld, critic Michael Carlson, the Euro Crime team of Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke, Bob Cornwell of Tangled Web and Crime Time, Chris Simmons of Crime Squad, John Dugdale of The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and many others. I also found delight in seeing so many Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award winners in the audience, among them Andrew Taylor, Francis Fyfield, and the aforementioned Cleeves, who has long championed English-translated crime fiction. The opinion was unanimous that Stieg Larsson’s work has made an indelible impression on both the crime-fiction genre and general book publishing worldwide.

As we sipped our drinks, Ambassador Carlsson stepped up to the microphone and welcomed us all to the Swedish Embassy for this literary celebration. He remarked that prior to coming to England in 2004, he had not been a big mystery/thriller reader, but since then, he’s observed the British love of Scandinavian crime fiction and become an enthusiastic convert. Not surprisingly, that statement was met with a rousing round of applause.

Soon afterward, we were lead into the room set aside for that evening’s main event, the panel debate on the subject of Swedish mystery fiction. Carlsson indicated that this conversation would be taped for the British Library, which was a nice touch.

BBC Radio presenter Mark Lawson opened what turned out to be an excellent and periodically funny exchange by noting that the Millennium Trilogy has now been translated into 44 languages, and that Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) was the first translated novel to reach the No. 1 spot on British bestseller lists. Eva Gedin, Larsson’s editor at Swedish publisher Norstedts, expressed her sadness at knowing the author never witnessed the full extent of his success. She added, though, that he knew he’d written something special when in 2004, there was a real buzz over Dragon Tattoo at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. She said that Larsson was very excited to hear that Random House/Bertelsmann AG had bought the first overseas rights to his novel, because he believed that such a sale to a large house was an indication of foreign publishing’s faith in his fiction writing. Unfortunately, Larsson’s sudden death on November 9 of that same year left Norstedts with a problem: most international publishers weren’t interested in purchasing rights to the work of a deceased and middle-aged novelist who had left behind only three books.

(Left) Quercus CEO Mark Smith and Swedish editor Eva Gedin

When the panelists were asked why Larsson’s work has become such a global phenomenon, Barry Forshaw (author of the forthcoming book, The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson) suggested that it may have to do in part with Larsson’s tragically early demise and the fact that he was a journalist who exposed neo-Nazi extremism, as well as the fact that Larsson created a bitter legal battle because he didn’t leave a will behind. All of that helped build a legend around Larsson. Gedin disagreed, pointing out that the books were a huge hit in Sweden even before all of the conspiracy tales and the lack of a will came into the public line of sight. For his own part, Swedish author Håkan Nesser (Woman with Birthmark) suggested that human beings are very susceptible to hype, and that the Swedes are extremely good at hyping things, whether it be the pop music group ABBA or tennis player Björn Borg. The hype surrounding Larsson, he said, has been further exacerbated by each story (like this one) that talks about the hype itself. Fellow author Lynda La Plante chalked up the success of Larsson (as well as Dan Brown and Thomas Harris) to word-of-mouth publicity. She said that she can still remember where and when she first picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--reading it was that powerful. La Plante added that she still thinks Dragon Tattoo is the best entry in Larsson’s trilogy. The Girl Who Played with Fire, she opined, is too much of a conventional action thriller, while The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (due for release in the States in May) is too confusing, due to its vast array of characters, many bearing similar names.

Gedin and Forshaw went on to explain that Larsson’s work pays homage to the crime-fiction conventions of the genre, offering nods and winks to Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky, and Elizabeth George, all of whom are mentioned in the novels. Forshaw noted that Larsson had based the character of Lisbeth Salander on Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s renowned Pippi Longstocking, trying to imagine what that little fictional girl might have been like had she grown into a woman. Gedin mentioned that Larsson based his books’ plots on real-life events, and that--being a meticulous researcher--he had studied many real serial-killer cases before sitting down to compose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When it came to the question of sexual violence in Larsson’s work, Barry Forshaw observed that there is a divide in opinion regarding Larsson’s feminism. He cited Val McDermid’s opinion that the Larsson novels are pro-feminist--because the male lead, Mikael Blomkvist, plays the “slut/bimbo” (a reversal of a fiction cliché), sleeping with anything that bears a decent pulse. Others took an opposite view, as they recalled the extreme violence inflicted upon Lisbeth Salander. Forshaw mused that Larsson had demonstrated “wish fulfillment” by creating a middle-aged journalist who could still attract beautiful young women. In an aside, the critic said he was glad that angle of Blomkvist’s character had been toned down for the movie version.

During the event’s question-and-answer segment, a member of the audience asked about the legal battle between Stieg Larsson’s partner of many years, Eva Gabrielsson, and his father, Erland, and brother, Joakim, who inherited author Larsson’s estate. Editor Gedin surprised us all by saying she thinks that that fight will soon reach its conclusion. When somebody else asked why Larsson had failed to file a proper will, Gedin said the answer was simple: he did not think he was going to die. And in response to rumors that Larsson had left behind on his laptop computer some 400 pages of an unfinished fourth manuscript, Gedin suggested the rumor was incorrect. She said that the three existing books form a satisfying trilogy and are a complete work within themselves, offering a sense of closure and leaving no necessity for a fourth installment.

I got in a question, as well. I asked Gedin how many of the 44 translated versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have used that as the first book’s name, rather than Larsson’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women. She reckoned it was about 50/50, with the German editions using another title altogether, Damnation.

As the evening wound to a close, the panelists were applauded and other attendees bid each other good night. I thanked the Swedish ambassador and his staff for inviting me to this event, and then went off to catch a train homeward. While I sat on board, I contemplated what Lynda La Plante had said about remembering where she’d been when she first enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s work. I have a no-less-strong recollection of one feverish night in December 2007, when nothing in this world could have stopped me from finishing Dragon Tattoo. That novel, like Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, changed my thinking. It made me realize that, even when you believe you have read everything worth your time, it’s still possible for a book to come along that can refresh a genre, provide new insights, and stir up your reading passions once more.

A very heartening realization, indeed.

* * *

Before leaving the Swedish Embassy that evening, I convinced critic/author Barry Forshaw to tell Rap Sheet readers something of what he’d learned about Stieg Larsson while penning his biography, The Man Who Left Too Soon. What follows is the short essay he sent to me on the day after the party:

As the posthumous success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy seems to grow to ever-more unprecedented levels, with worldwide sales in the millions, it is an apposite time to celebrate the life and work of an intriguing, courageous--and self-destructive--man. Of course, extremely talented people often possess a certain carelessness with regard to their own health, for a variety of reasons. Leonard Bernstein certainly matched Stieg Larsson in terms of a prodigious nicotine intake, but preferred haute cuisine to the junk food that was another element in Stieg Larsson’s own reckless lifestyle.

Bernstein, however, believed he was one of the gods and that the health strictures which ordinary mortals were obliged to take note of simply didn’t apply to him--knowing that he was an immortal in terms of his music, he ill-advisedly applied this mindset to his much-abused body. With Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, aged 50, the scenario was rather different, and the combination of what might be called a Protestant work ethic and a fierce desire to right the wrongs of the world were partly behind the cavalier approach to his own well-being. What counted was the work--not maintaining the instrument that carried it out.

It goes without saying that Larsson’s early death is a crucial element in the mythic qualities that his life and work have come to possess. But it is the innovation and intelligence of the Millennium Trilogy (along with its trenchant and fierce social critiques, so much a part of Larsson’s own crusading personality) that are among the real reasons behind the all-conquering acclaim the books have engendered.

Just as Larsson cannily pays out chunks of information to his readers to create a total picture, it seemed to me appropriate to attempt something similar in The Man Who Left Too Soon, the book I was commissioned to write. The approach I have taken is piecemeal, utilizing a variety of elements--Stieg’s life, his influential journalistic career as a courageous fighter against extremist organizations, his relatives, his publishers, his translators, the successful movies being made from his books--and the acrimonious dispute over his legacy. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to most of the people concerned, but like virtually all readers of the novels, I never had a chance to meet the author, for whom the phrase “taken too soon” could have been coined.

Larsson aficionados will be aware that his biography is, to some extent, to be found in his books--hence the concentration here on the three novels of his trilogy, with biographical data built into these sections rather than hived off into separate chapters (though his life is addressed separately). So at the center of this study (to be read, of course, only after reading the novels themselves) is a thoroughgoing examination of the phenomenally successful novels in the trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, which comprise one of the most striking and innovative trilogies in modern fiction. And for all their faults (fully discussed in the book alongside their felicities), the auguries are that the books will join the pantheon of the very finest popular literature, to be read for generations to come.


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I am always a late convert - I have just bought The Dragon Tattoo and it's next on my TBR pile. I have heard so much about the trilogy - so sad that the writer went before the full extent of his success was known. But maybe with the books he may have become immortal. Who knows!

Anonymous said...

People Are talking about Kristin Stewart as Salander...
I think tiny Ellen Page is a possibility.

Julia Buckley said...

I am behind the times--I only started Larsson's book last night. A very intriguing prologue . . .