Wednesday, August 18, 2010

That tattooed girl . . .

Have you read any or all of Stieg Larsson's trilogy of thrillers: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest? If so, what did you think of them?

I  just finished reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, courtesy of a loan from gym buddy, Peter Kohn, of J.M.U.'s math department. Peter, like me, is a sucker for a good mystery/thriller. Thank-you, Peter. In my opinion . . . Hornet's Nest was the best of the bunch.

So, I've been asking myself what I thought of these books.

 Stieg Larsson died in 2004 shortly after handing over the manuscripts of this trilogy to his publisher. Knopf snapped up the American rights for a lot of money (they won't say how much) as soon as they became available.

NPR lists five pages of stories about Larsson's trilogy on its website, but I think I did the first--a look at how Knopf planned to market a trio of books by a dead author whom few people outside Sweden had ever heard of. Going back and reading the transcript of my piece, I see I used a snippet of  an interview I did with crime fiction columnist Sarah Weinman.
What makes any crime novel work, regardless of where it's set and what it's about, is how much empathy does the writer have for his or her chosen subjects and for his characters? And if there's one thing that comes through besides passion, it's also empathy.
There are two protagonists in this series: Mikael Blomkvist, a forty-ish, crusading, liberal journalist; and Lisbeth Salander, a mid-twenties, tattooed, genius hacker who seems vaguely autistic.

Stieg Larsson's empathy for his character Mikael Blomkvist seems organic, one crusading journalist for another. Author and character share a desire to expose what they see as Swedish society's tacit acceptance of violence against women and increasing attraction to far right extremism. Both character and author seem serious, hard-working, fixated, a tad self-righteous, socially quirky. In other words, the character of Mikael Blomkvist, without his tattooed sidekick, Lisbeth Salendar, would probably not have made a literary ripple, let alone caused what's most likely the decade's literary tsunami.

Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, is simply fabulous -- small, weird, anti-social, brilliant, morally unconventional, and quite shockingly decorated with piercings and tattoos.  Legendary New York Times book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, writes:
“Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while – a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock. She is the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl . . . who has proved herself to be as incandescently proficient as any video game warrior.”
As for the author's empathy with his female protagonist, it's certainly there. But who cares about the author's empathy. Lisbeth has our empathy. She is so deliberately what women are not supposed to be, and in following her around for a couple of years (the span of the trilogy) we get to experience both the cost and the glory of living life with no regard at all for convention. Not quite for me; but still, you go, girl!

The problem with these books, for me, is not with the two main characters, but with the editing. Or lack of it. These novels are wordy, confusing, and full of details that slow the pace. A good editor would have whipped these three 500-or-so page thrillers into a trio of 300-pagers.

Who knows why this didn't happen. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that Larsson's estate is tied up in family wrangling. But it could just as easily have had to do with various publishers' desires to get them into readers' hands quickly. I liked The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest best, I think, because Larsson had gotten better at the rhythm and pace of writing a thriller by the time he wrote it.

Stieg Larsson's books have sold over 27 million copies in 40 countries, and just recently hit the 1 million mark in e-book sales. He is the second author to do so. The extremely prolific James Patterson (60 or so novels)  was the first author to sell a million e-books. Patterson published his first novel in 1976. The first Larsson book came out in this country in 2008. The Kindle came out in 2007.

Real book sales of Larsson's trilogy remain phenomenal, as well. When I checked this morning,  Hornet's Nest occupies number 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and  Played with Fire occupies that same spot on paperback fiction.

Okay, back to the question of whether I really liked these books. The answer is that I did. But I wanted to love them. And I didn't do that.

So, how about you?


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