Monday, January 2, 2012
I suppose you already know the sordid background of the author: how he died climbing up seven floors because his lift wasn't working; because he'd been at least a three to four pack a day smoker for a long time. You probably know that his real job was as an editor of magazines that exposed things that the bad guys would rather have left alone; that he didn't get married to his long-time partner because he'd been getting death threats and so didn't want his address in the public records; about how, since there was no will, his partner was legally entitled to nothing, including the royalties to the mega-selling books; about how his father and brother--whom he was estranged from--have therefore made millions of dollars (and kronen) from his work. She has since sued them; supposedly they have offered her a few million to go away. About how millions more are coming in for royalties to the movies, and about how she's basically blackmailing everybody by saying that she has the manuscripts for most of the fourth (about three-quarters) and some of the fifth installments of the series (there might have been ten had he lived to write them all). And, finally, about how she says she has all of his notes and outlines for the fourth book, and therefore should be the one to finish it. (You can bet that someone will; much like how Robert B. Parker finished Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, and how others are now writing his many series.)
Well, if you didn't know all that, there you are. Sounds like a murder-mystery in of itself.
I'd rather write about how this book sort of breaks the mold. It essentially does everything that many agents and publishers say they don't want: shifting 3rd person POV (if you want to say that Lisbeth is a co- major character, remember that the other intrusively tells us what Frode, Martin, and other minor characters are thinking, often in snippets); waiting 50 or so pages before the main mystery is established; titling the book after a minor character (admittedly, Larsson chose the first book's title, and maybe the second, but definitely not the third. They're published in his home country under very different titles); carrying on the book for over 100 pages after the main mystery has been solved. Many examples of author intrusion, especially when he has to step in to tell us how a magazine office runs. You get the idea.
All no-nos. But Larsson does them all, and manages to pull it off.
Partly this is because he digs so deeply into the characters that they themselves, rather than the plot, carry the novel. The writing tone is consistent throughout, regardless as to who's being focused on. The detail is super, from the weather, to the towns, to the characters. (He hedges a bit on how all the hacking and financial disbursements are accomplished.) The dialogue is mostly good (though all the characters talk in compound sentences, with a "," followed by an "and." Lisbeth especially would not do this, and it makes all the characters sound somewhat alike; I'll bet Larsson used to talk the same way).
The themes and issues are there, most notably the ill-treatment towards females in Swedish society. It's apparently just as pandemic as Henning Mankell's assertion about how immigrants are treated in Sweden, as well. (One wonders with a shudder how the female immigrants are treated.)
But, most importantly, once the staples of the mystery come out--the pictures, tracking down the onlookers who took them, the interviews and the research--he runs with them, even while acknowledging that the plot is essentially a locked-room mystery on an island (like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None), and that women, regardless of age, apparently can't keep their clothes on around the major character. The pace picks up and you turn the pages. It takes awhile to pick up, and there's a long descent, but there's obviously a story arc, just like every writing teacher has ever told you to do.
And so he unconventionally connected the dots, I guess you might say. And he did it well. It's too bad he couldn't complete all ten. Someone else will undoubtedly (and probably later, rather than sooner, because of the courtroom drama) run with it, but it won't be the same. No other writer, for example, would have littered the book's landscape with mystery writer allusions--and even make a character hide under the name of Victor Fleming, the director of most of The Wizard of Oz and of Gone with the Wind! We won't see that audacity again.