Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Stieg Larsson: Scandinavian crime wave strikes again!
I'm finally getting around to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (more about that title in a minute). In addition to being a great read (even at 533 pages in English translation, the story flows effortlessly forward), Stieg Larsson's novel is self-consciously a "text" in the semiotic sense (and it's a tribute to the author's skills that it's "text-ness" is never a burden to the reader). What I mean is that the references to literature (specifically crime literature) abound in particularly appropriate ways (more appropriate and effective than the tossed-off references or tributes common in Ken Bruen's novels). The main character in this book (the first of what is called the Millennium trilogy) is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (publisher of Millennium magazine, hence the series title): after Blomkvist achieves notoriety by solving a series of daring robberies, he is inevitably referred to by a witty reporter as "Kalle Blomkvist," a nickname he hates. The reference is a bit lost on American readers, since the title character's name was changed in translations of Astrid Lindgren's boy-detective novels (Kalle Blomkvist in the original, Bill Bergson in translation). The reference is a sly clue to the reader about the author's approach, as well as a signal to watch what the reporter is reading: He's attracted to various pulp writers, and the nature of those books sometimes signals a shift in the narrative. When the story shifts from the investigation of a family's sordid past to the possible discovery of a ruthless serial killer, Blomkvist has gone from a Sue Grafton detective story to a Val McDermid serial killer novel (and a bloody one at that). About that title in English: Like Astrid Lindgren's English-language publishers, Maclehose Press has changed things around. The original Swedish title, literally translated, means "Men Who Hate Women." The current title in English, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, refers to the other chief character (and a more central character in later episodes), Lisbeth Salander, but the English title says little about the book itself. Perhaps a clue is the title of the second book in the trilogy, which Maclehose is reportedly leaving alone, in a literal translation: The Girl Who Played with Fire. Are they looking for a self-conscious "series" title? Will the third volume be called "The Girl Who Knew Too Much," or something like that? In any case, Salander is a fascinating character, an unsocialized "wild child" something like Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory (but Salander is actually more believable and more interesting, though prodigiously talented and anti-social in similar ways). Crime novels have certainly gotten longer and fuller than in the classic days of Simenon and early McBain, but there are only a few crime novels that can sustain the length that Larsson does (and the sequels are apparently even longer): one other who does manage the trick is Jo Nesbø of Norway (what is it about the Scandinavians--rapidly catching up in numbers of books and numbers of pages after a late start in the international crime stakes). Larsson and Nesbø share the talent for writing a long novel that stays interesting all the way through, and a few other qualities, despite differences. Larsson's "detective" in this novel is a disgraced reporter (rather than a disgraced cop), but without the painful emotional history of Nesbø's Harry Hole. And Hole carries the novels almost single-handedly (at least in terms of running characters), whereas Larsson focuses on a pair of central characters. But Larsson is evidently performing a "deconstruction" or survey of crime fiction: in addition to Blomkvist's reading matter and his name, the three novels evidently take different models from within the genre (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is along that Grafton-McDermid-O'Connell spectrum), and at least one of the later books seems to be more of a thriller, political and otherwise. It's easy to see why the Millennium trilogy is a big hit in Sweden, and I'll be waiting impatiently for the final two volumes (final because Larsson died before the series achieved its current fame). I may return to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for another comment or two, but that's all for now--who else has read it? Does anyone have any comments?