Heroine Addict 01: Details, Details …
Mysteries or thrillers featuring female main characters, written by men. For some reason, I’ve read quite a few of those lately. Here’s what we’ve got:
Steig Larsson’s first two Girl Who … novels, Henning Mankell’s Kennedy’s Brain and Peter O’Donnell’s tenth Modesty Blaise novel, The Xanadu Talisman. Also, I could (and will) mention Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country novels and Shooting at Midnight, and maybe throw in my favorite Elmore Leonard story. O’Donnell and Rucka both deserve their own attention, though, so this post will look at the Swedish titles.
The Larsson novels, costarring a strange young woman named Lisabeth Salander, were the biggest thing since The Da Vinci Code, which is why I was avoiding them. But eventually I’d had my interest piqued by reference to similarities between Salander and Modesty Blaise (which are there, vaguely, but not in a sense that makes me enjoy the Larsson books any better). Then I noticed the first two Larsson paperbacks on sale for five bucks each at Amazon, so what the hell, I was in.
Verdict: They’re pretty good.
As a journalist, I appreciated the way that Larsson brought his own journalist’s background to make his world feel very authentic. This was obviously a man who had an eye for detail, and a perhaps obsessive process of thinking through his fictional scenarios. The downside to this is that both of the first two books get bogged down in an excess of detail, an excess of plot, that make them take forever to read. When you can get a couple hundred pages into a book and feel like the story hasn’t really started yet (especially the case with the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire), there might be too much detail. Fire also takes a police manhunt to an impressive level of detail, but so many ultimately insignificant investigators and side players are given time in the spotlight that I had trouble keeping track of who was who, all these Swedish names that I’m suppose to remember—okay, this one is a kind of plodding, but honest cop, this one has a grudge, this one’s lazy, and this little cop cried “wee wee wee” all the way home …
Then there are the mysteries. The first, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, spends a few hundred pages setting up an absolutely unsolvable cold-case mystery, then solves it with such outrageous stretches of plausibility that I was let down. My suspension of disbelief crashed, and as we’ll see from my future reviews, I have a pretty good ability to suspend disbelief. Perhaps it was that the meticulous building of a realer-than-real world just left me unable to go along with improbable discoveries of improbable clues. It seemed Larsson had painted himself into a corner, setting up such an unsolvable puzzle that his solution seemed too improbable.
This was less the case with Fire, in which we were given a massive police manhunt tied to the unrevealed darkness in Lisabeth Salander’s past. Explaining her absolutely fucked-up childhood, with its ties to international crime and spy skullduggery, brought all the sensationalism of a James Bond novel, but if you accept the idea of such dramatic tales of crime and espionage, this one came together just fine. As the novel progressed, Larsson’s “realistic” world moved further away from normal daily life, and it was an effortless transition.
In summary, Larsson was attempting to create page-turner thrillers, and succeeded (judging from his international popularity), but for my money got too bogged down in both books—each of which would’ve been far more compelling if he’d tightened at least a hundred pages. Of course, he hadn’t been pursuing publication long at the time he died, so perhaps if a good editor could have worked with him, the slack might’ve been taken out. But the problem is less his sentences than his overall sense of setting and plot design, I suspect that this was simply the kind of book Larsson wanted to write. They’re pretty good, and I lucked into an abandoned hardcover copy of the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which I look forward to reading soon.
Next up: Henning Mankell’s more emotional, more atmospheric Kennedy’s Brain, in which a woman tries to make sense of her son’s sudden death and discovers—perhaps—a deep international conspiracy.
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