Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dragon Tattoo, parts II and III

As trailed previously, I've finally gotten around to polishing off the two remaining titles in Stieg Larsson's truncated-by-a-heart-attack Millennium series: The Girl Who Played with Fire and its hard-on-the-heels follow-up The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. As both novels are far more tightly coupled to one another in terms of plot line than they are to the original novel, it kind-of makes sense to do them at the same time. Hence the following double-act ...

TGWPWF opens with Salander enjoying the spoils of her hacking from the first novel in an extended holiday/ spending spree, and with Blomkvist collaborating with a young journalist, and his criminology-PhD girlfriend, on an exposé of people-smuggling and prostitution in Sweden. After digging a little too closely to authority figures, the charming, young, investigative couple are murdered, and the police are misdirected into labelling Salander as chief suspect. Separately at first, Blomkvist and Salander begin to investigate this turn of events, sharing information only when it suits the preternaturally suspicious Salander. Gradually the tortuous path of evidence leads back towards a figure from Salander's past, Zalachenko, her father and the man she once set fire to as a child, an act that initiated her life-long abuse at the hands of the Swedish authorities. Discovering the centre of his web in a remote rural location, Salander sets out to finish the job she started years earlier.

But that doesn't entirely work out to plan, and TGWKTHN begins with both Salander and Zalachenko nursing serious injuries in hospital. Eager to clear her name, and now more aware of the circumstances that led to Salander's institutionalisation as a child, Blomkvist begins to investigate how the Swedish state came to ride roughshod over her civil rights while at the same time protecting those of a Russian gangster. Meanwhile, the Section, the invisible branch of Sweden's Security Service that has handled Zalachenko since his original defection from Soviet Russia, swings back into action to covertly discredit Salander and to quietly spirit Zalachenko back into the shadows. However, Zalachenko refuses to conform with the Section's plans, forcing the old Cold Warriors that run the organisation to assassinate him, and to instigate surveillance of Blomkvist to find out what exactly he knows. Unfortunately for them, he has been surreptitiously working with the still-hospitalised Salander and has already pieced enough together to engage the help of friends, colleagues and similarly suspicious police officers to investigate the Section. And the trial of Salander provides an excellent opportunity to reveal and turn the tables on their activities, past and present.

Overall, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that my earlier fears of diminishing returns have largely turned out to be misplaced. The successor volumes, while less compelling than the original novel on a number of counts (see below), more or less maintain an even keel, and are about as page-turningly enjoyable as the first encounter with Blomkvist and Salander. They certainly didn't take me a whole lot of time (or pain) to plough through (which is more than can be said for me writing them up here), which is a lot more than can often be said about high-profile, high-page-count, sequels.

Much of the bad news is probably related to this conformity with the first novel. Namely that the actual writing still leaves a lot to be desired - chiefly an editor unafraid to pare Larsson's text down to something less egregiously grating. Much as with the first novel, there are extended descriptions of the utterly mundane, and a plethora of largely unnecessary characters and subplots. And, as before, I don't think that this aspect of the novels can be laid at the door of the translator - I suspect that they've just been too reverent to Larsson's original Swedish prose to wield the knife. All that said, the extraneous components of the novel are less deleterious here than in the first novel, largely because the plotlines are better suited to a broader tapestry of characters and perspectives.

If I can continue being critical, a major weakness is that the two books are co-dependent, and far less stand-alone than the original novel. Unlike that first jaunt, you simply can't just read one of them since the story is very much incomplete at the end of TGWPWF. More annoying still is that the novels commit what to me is the cardinal sin of crime fiction: the story revolves around the investigator. This is more a feature of television crime drama, but it does occur in novels too, including, disappointingly, the very first Rebus novel (as I've moaned on about before). Here, the core of both novels is built on the traumatic backstory of Salander, and while this is somewhat interesting, she was a more compelling character when she was investigating the affairs of others. There's also something more than a little bit silly in how Salander's family is at the focus of a decade-spanning, secretive cabal of spies that threatens the Swedish state. A little like how the galactic scale events of Star Wars revolve, in part, around the dysfunction of a single family. It would have been far more convincing if Blomkvist and Salander uncovered such a scheme while investigating someone else.

But I'm probably being too harsh. Overall I more or less enjoyed both books. I don't think they're as good as the first novel, but I certainly didn't find them a chore to get through. While Larsson may never have learned to write well (to be fair, probably just because he died before he got better at it), he did manage to create an interesting pair of central characters, and wove them into what are quite page-turningly enjoyable books. And, while he doesn't exactly do it with panache, it's pleasingly right-on that Larsson tries to shoehorn feminist themes into the books - though he'd have done much better if he'd eased up on the wish-fulfilment aspects of Blomkvist's love life. Anyhow, by way of summary, largely because of Larsson's clumsy prose and inability to delete redundant storylines, the novels aren't up there with the best of crime fiction, but they're eminently recommendable to genre fans.

Finally, what's a little sad is that TGWKTHN ends in a way that suggests that Salander has finally resolved her issues with Blomkvist, and that the future holds more adventures together for them. Particularly so since, in completing these latter two novels, Larsson has gotten Salander's backstory out of his system, potentially opening the way for more stand-alone and non-cardinal-sin-committing investigations. Tales that, unfortunately, will never be written because of Larsson's premature death. Ho-hum.

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