Bits and Bobs and a Promise of a Review

There is a new issue of the Journal of Specialized Translation out that’s devoted to crime fiction in translation, and one of the articles, by Kerstin Bergman, analyzes Denise Mina’s adaptation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire into graphic novels. In particular, she focuses on the way Lisbeth Salander is depicted, finding the graphic novel character more sexualized and less feminist, with the overall story more of a crime adventure tale and less a work of critical feminism – partly echoing the visual style of comic book traditions, partly because the entire story is trimmed down, leaving out some of the social and political context. Having read one of these, I concur with her analysis, even though I am a huge Denise Mina fan. (I suspect that when a character is embraced by so many people in very different culltural contexts, we each end up with a slightly different Salander in our imaginations.)

Kerstin Bergman has also just published a terrific book, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir, which I hope to review here very soon. Barry Forshaw praises it at CrimeTime (but wants you to buy his books, too.)

At Stop You’re Killing Me (a fabulously useful website that I fervently help will never stop) Lucinda Serber has a review of Anna Jansson’s Strange Bird, published by Stockholm Text in 2013. As usual, it’s not the first in the series. She calls it a “powerful scientific thriller” about a bird-borne disease that not only makes people sick, it brings out the worst in them. That’s an eerily timely topic.

Lynn Harvey reviews Kjell Ericksson’s newly translated Black Lies, Red Blood, which she finds embodies the social conscience of Scandi crime to an extent that might frustrate those looking for who dunnit or quick thrills. She concludes “these digressions are the result of Eriksson’s urge for realism and social reportage and if that informs the spirit of Scandi-noir for you – then BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD is also the latest in your essential reading.”

Laura Root reviews Karin Fossum’s The Murder of Harriet Krohn at Euro Crime, She finds this seventh in the Konrad Sejer series well-written but not as compelling as other books Fossum has written. It, like others, explores how an ordinary man can do awful things while, at heart, remaining a rather boring person.

I was chuffed to be interviewed a while back via email for a couple of articles about Scandinavian crime fiction in a Brazilian newspaper. I’m afraid I didn’t say anything profound or original, though it appears as if I actually know some Portuguese. (Sadly, I don’t.)

I missed the mainstream reviews, which have been plentiful, of Jo Nesbo’s latest novel, a standalone, which has met with a variety of responses. Val McDermid isn’t impressed by The Son, which she finds implausible, predictable, and too long. “Strip away the platitudes and the interior monologues, spare us the sentimentality and the self-justification, and this could have been a dark and muscular slice of noir that chills to the bone. Instead, it’s overblown and preachy with the kind of faux-nobility with which Hollywood loves to invest its villains.”

I’m afraid I felt rather the same in my review at Reviewing the Evidence, which concludes on this congenial note:

As always with Nesbø, the plot is deviously convoluted and the workings of escapades worked out like fine-tuned machinery. The main characters are full of charm and faults, driven and smart, but tempted by their addictions. The police force is riddled with corruption and crime is highly organized. There are times when the characters wax philosophical and ponder the nature of free will and hard choices between action scenes. It’s entertaining and, as always, full of twists, with a bit more of a morality play included than usual.

What it doesn’t have is any sense that what’s happening in the story owes any resemblance to reality. Nesbø’s books, which once were fresh and startling, offering a good bit of thought-provoking fun, have become a little too burdened with special effects. He owes more to Hollywood than to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the grandparents of contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction and the social critique it is known for. Nesbø doesn’t hold up a mirror to society or probe what ails it. It’s pure entertainment all the way down.

I have piles of reviews to write – eventually. Meanwhile, those of you in the Minneapolis area, don’t forget that on August 9th Once Upon a Crime will be hosting three Finnish crime writers worth meeting. The greatest mystery I’m pondering right now is how it can possibly be August already.

Linkfest

Time to catch up on what has been happening while my nose was to the grindstone at work.

Bill Ott reflects on Henning Mankell’s tenth and final Wallander novel. So does translator Anna Patterson in The Independent, Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times Book Review, Andrew Brown in The Guardian (more of a summary-cum-parody than a review) and a proper review by Karen Meek of Euro Crime.

Declan Burke goes one better by interviewing the author. So does John Preston in The Telegraph.

John Lloyd of the Financial Times looks at Mankell’s Troubled Man, the Danish television sensation The Killing and the appeal of dark Scandinavian crime in general.

Maxine Clarke reviews Gunnar Staalesen’s Yours Until Death, first published in Norwegian in 1979 and showing its age, though still an interesting read.

Bernadette reviews Liza Marklund’s Red Wolf – and enjoys the commentary on politics and the press as much as the mystery.

The Scotsman has an interesting interview with Jo Nesbo, who goes rock-climbing in Thailand to relieve the pressure of being a wildly successful writer, musician, and former footballer. Seems when talent was handed out one Norwegian got a bit greedy.

Keishon reviews Nesbo’s The Leopard and thinks it’s better than his last, and another good entry in a great series.

The Telegraph has an interesting essay by Anne Holt about a crime that changed the way Norwegians looked at violence; crime can be banal, brutal, and not clearly solved.

With the popularity of the complex television series The Killing in the UK, the Guardian catches up with Danish culture – food, style, couture, travel, and yes – crime fiction. Added to the usual Nordic noir lineup is a bit about Jussi Adler-Olsen, whose first novel in a cold-case trilogy will be released in English in May.

More on The Killing from Areopagitica. Note the Pamphleteer’s final sentiment: “There also a new US TV version of this drama. We can ignore that!” That’s how I feel, though you can read this Wall Street Journal analysis and see if you are tempted by the Seattle-set version. Glenn Harper is intrigued, but he’s watching the original first.

Read this with your eyes closed if you haven’t caught up with the series. Only Mrs. Peabody actually doesn’t give away the end, but says there will be a series two. Really? Now if we could only get the real deal here in the U.S. …

A writer in the Wall Street Journal thinks Scandinavian crime fiction is all political and Marxist and stuff. Also it’s not Strindberg. No comment.

A travel piece in The Guardian on “Larsson-land” talks about how literary tourists should check out northern Sweden but somehow fails to mention the other Larsson – Asa Larsson – or Liza Marklund, whose Red Wolf happens to be set in the town being profiled.

The Random Jotter likes Jo Nesbo’s series.

Hersilia Press thinks highly of Nesser’s The Inspector and Silence.

Mike Ripley talks about crime fiction in general – his own and his reflections based on his long-running column for Shots magazine – at The Rap Sheet. Once again, he goes on record to say the current crop of Scandinavian crime fiction (and Stieg Larsson in particular) is overrated. He thinks they lack heart and generosity of spirit and believes that Lisbeth Salander is not all that original:

Call me old-fashioned and patriotic (or just old), but I reckon Lisbeth Salander owes an awful lot to feisty, kick-ass, computer-literate, sexy heroines of British crime fiction of the late 1980s/early 1990s created by writers such as Val McDermid, Sarah Dunant, Denise Danks, Lesley Grant-Adamson, and Stella Duffy.

NancyO reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Murder at the Savoy at her Crime Segments portion of her literary blogging. Though she thinks it’s a bit less intense than previous entries in the series, she gives it high marks and writes:

As with the other books, there are memorable moments of humor during a serious investigation, and the characters continue to grow and change, acting very human all of the time. And another hallmark of this series continues here: the crime, the investigation, the characters’ lives and the social commentary all occur succinctly within a relatively short amount of space with no superfluous distractions.

NancyO also reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Cop Killer, and is sorry that having read the ninth, she’s nearly at the end of this fine series.

Sarah Weinman addresses in her Dark Passages column for the L.A. Times what she calls “post-misogyny” – cultural demonstrations of male responses to waves of feminism. (As I write this I am musing over the presence in this morning’s New York times front section 1) a front-page story on how middle-school sexting affects girls, 2) a harrowing story about a woman who finds reporters in Libya and tells them she has been gang-raped by pro-government thugs and is dragged away for more and 3) a story about how rape is becoming a common occurrence in India at the interface of traditional and modern societies. Which is to say “post” does not mean “over”.)  Anyway, here’s how Sarah frames the essay:

I speak, of course, of Stieg Larsson. No introductions are necessary for his now-iconic, soon-to-be-Fincherized-heroine Lisbeth Salander. As I’ve said elsewhere, the key to why the books have sold close to 50 million copies worldwide is that the hyperkinetic, Asperger-esque, quasi-sociopathic amalgam of archetypes that is Lisbeth leads the reader through teachable moment after teachable moment of violence against women until the culminating, and cathartic, trial sequence in “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” — and we, the readers, are redeemed by and are complicit with Lisbeth’s resultant triumph.

She goes on to review some new books by women that play with similar tropes. At least a couple have gone on my “to be read” list.

Joan Acocella has a different explanation for the popularity of the trilogy: “cheap thrills.” In this analysis in The New Yorker, Larsson is an unskilled writer, but “a very good storyteller.” And yes, The Girl is at the center of Larsson’s success.

The woman warrior has become a beloved feature of the movies, from Nikita to Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, and beyond. It is also, reportedly, a sexual fantasy popular with men—something else that may have helped to sell the books… [but Larsson is not merely trading in cliches because Salander is] a complicated person, alienating and poignant at the same time . . . She operates outside society but not outside morality. She is an outlaw, or a sprite—a punk fairy.

Speaking of L.A., I’m going to be part of this – squee!

(Sorry for the random placement of italics in this post – WordPress is suddenly sprinkling ems everywhere when I try to tilt a title, so some are italics and some are not.)

catching up and a backlash of sorts

News from Norway: The Cockroaches (Harry Hole #2) and Headhunters (stand alone) has recently been sold to Harvill Secker in the UK, according to Jo Nesbo’s agency.

Nancy O reviews The Stone Murders by Matti Joensuu published in English by St. Martin’s in 1987. She gives it high marks, particularly as a first in a series.

The Stone Murders is not really a mystery, because the criminals are revealed right away to be young men from extremely dysfunctional families and backgrounds.  It is more of a police procedural, but at the same time, Joensuu interweaves into the story a brief look at the problems of 1980s Helsinki: child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and teen gangs that have no respect for anyone (especially the police, who fear them), to name a few. There’s also a look at the police force itself — the ridiculous bureaucracy, the lack of officers to handle the ongoing crime problems, and the ineptitude of a few who are supposed to be in charge of others. Joensuu also offers a look into Harjunpaa’s personal life, which as things get worse for this particular case, becomes his safe haven. . . . Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this, as will anyone who likes a good police procedural.

Norm (aka Uriah) does some deducting of his own while analyzing the International Dagger winners over past years. Pretty charts included.

“Euroman” complains that Scandinavian crime fiction writing associations – the folks who award prizes and promote the genre – seem to be less excited about the popularity of the success of their compatriots than everyone else and have sadly neglected Websites.

And finally, the Larsson reports:

The National Post is one of a bazillion news outlets reporting that we can soon buy a boxed set of the Millennium Trilogy, a book about the books, and e-mail exchanges between author and editor. What next, Salander-themed towels and sheets?

This week court must be in session; a number of dissenting opinions on Stieg Larsson are being handed down. Two come from the Huffington Post. Ilana Teitelbaum finds it boring, poorly structured, and thinks the violence against women is exploitative thriller business as usual – and suspects the violence itself is what makes it so popular. Lev Raphael agrees, but acknowledges he’s not a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction (“they just haven’t been my beer, as the Germans say in general”) and is skeptical of books that are packaged by publishers and reps as blockbusters. And Tiger Beatdown’s columnist “the rejectionist” takes issue with the level of violence and questions whether Larsson really was a man who hates men who hates women or if he’s just a typical thriller writer making use of violence against women in a tried-and-true way.

Reading Salander as a feminist icon for our times is a pretty challenging endeavor. About the best thing you can say about her is that, unlike Larsson’s other characters, she at least has some depth.

People who write about dead ladies make a shit-ton of money (see: Patterson, James; Cornwell, Patricia; Koontz, Dean; &c ad nauseum). Even more people want to read about dead ladies than want to write about them; which, as a lady, stresses me out. I like murder mysteries and I like thrillers. But I am getting fucking tired of those stories revolving solely around rape and torture. Packaging that nastiness up as feminist is icing on an ugly cake. There are men who hate women: I am aware of this. Anyone who has ever tried living as a woman is aware of this. I don’t need a ten-page explicit rape scene to bring this point home; I need only to leave my house.

I am certainly curious, as I think are many ladies, as to why some men hate women so much; that, I believe, is a question worth exploring. And since ladies have had little success so far in answering it, perhaps it is time for the gentlemen to start doing some of the heavy lifting around here. But here’s a hint, fellows: writing a story about a father-son pair who dismember hundreds of women in a “private torture chamber [contrived] with great care” is not a successful answer to this question . . . The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining.

The Mail has an excerpt from a book, Stieg Larsson, My Friend, by Kurdo Baksi, which includes the claim that Larsson was haunted by an event when he was a teenager: he witnessed a rape by a group of boys he knew, but didn’t intervene and was dogged by guilt. He also writes “Stieg’s global success has changed my life. I am often invited to lecture about him throughout Europe. It feels almost as if, in a most bizarre fashion, I have become an ambassador for Stieg. But I do it willingly and am happy to have him in my orbit in this way.” I’m not sure who is in who’s orbit, but never mind.

a little linkfest

Shelf Awareness reports that “the late Stieg Larsson is the first member of the Kindle Million Club, according to Amazon, which announced that the Millennium Trilogy author has become the first writer to sell more than one million Kindle books.” Say what you like about Larsson and all the attendant hype, this makes me happy.

In the CS Monitor, Sarah Seltzer considers Salander’s (and Larsson’s) feminism.

Salander is a controversial figure; feminists and other observers are divided over the message she sends to women today. That debate, while valid, misses a key point: We should all celebrate the emergence of an utterly original female literary character. In an action-story landscape where women are too often relegated to girlfriend, sidekick or prey in need of defending, Salander grabs the spotlight and refuses to let it go. . . .

Larsson’s novels achieve something perhaps more difficult than advancing a social-justice cause: introducing an utterly original female character to the world, one who avoids the tired archetypes of helpless victim, lovelorn and needy single female, karate-kicking babe, ferocious tiger mother, or deranged scorned mistress. Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating mess, a real piece of work, but she’s active and human, more than one can say for than insipid Twilight heroine Bella Swan.

The Sipilas are in the Strib’s spotlight. Jarkko Sipila’s Finnish procedurals are being published in English translation by his brother in Minnesota. He has told me he is planning to publish at least one other Finnish writer, too. I reviewed Against the Wall and Vengeance here.

Maxine is now leading summer tours, and very entertaining they are, too. Denmark is one of her destinations.

Karen at Euro Crime reports the happy news that Norwegian writer  Thomas Enger now has an English language publication deal with Faber. I have happily updated my “wanted” page. Since I don’t have a picture of him, I thought I’d include one of Oslo’s mean streets (courtesy of jamtea).

“set somewhere in Scandinavia”

The Book Maven explains why she doesn’t like the Millennium Trilogy. Personally, I agree with her criticism, but I ended up enjoying them anyway (the second two volumes more than the first, though I know others who like the first best). They have a kind of weird energy that saw me past the heaps of unnecessary detail and the lulls in pacing. The more we got to see from Salander’s point of view, the more I enjoyed them.

Forbes has an article on Salander and, being a business magazine, the trilogy is billed as a “feminist franchise” – uh . . . really? As with many other articles, it’s partly about the books and partly speculation about the US film remakes, which perhaps makes sense as the author or the article, Melissa Silverstein, runs a website on women and Hollywood. After discussing the character, responses gathered from readers through social networks, and considering whether a female author could get away with such a heroine (she reckons it would have been dismissed as “crazy chick lit”), she speculates about the possible film legacy:

The clear challenge for Hollywood is to not tone down the rough and decidedly unpretty nature and look of Lisbeth’s character. “I am concerned about how they decide to cast her and how they dilute her because Hollywood has traditionally been very afraid of powerful women,” wrote film blogger Anne Thompson. Think about it: If Hollywood was smart, Lisbeth Salander could be the first real female action hero.

Unlike Sex and the City and Twilight, which are largely targeted at girls and women, what makes this female-led franchise unique is that this one has actual crossover potential. Men like Larsson’s books just as much as women. If men and women will pay money see a female star who takes down the bad guys and doesn’t need to look like a babe in the process, she would certainly be The Girl Who Started a Feminist Franchise.

Personally, I think if Hollywood were smart, it would leave well enough alone and not try to reinvent the already well-regarded Swedish films. But they aren’t likely to ask my opinion.

Marilyn Stasio has little good to say about Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess. Ouch! I wonder if her reaction was in part push-back from too much “next Stieg Larsson” hype that seems to attach to all things Swedish. (Earlier, this US debut for Lackberg got starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.)

Norm (aka Uriah) has had it with hype. He wonders if Hamlet will be the next to be linked to the Millennium phenomenon – “people get murdered, it is set somewhere in Scandinavia, so if you liked Stieg Larsson you will enjoy this.” His ire was provoked when a Hakan Nesser book had Mankell and Larsson splashed on its cover – though Nesser has so many laurels he needn’t rest on other people’s – and he quite rightly finds his style more comparable with Sjowall and Wahloo than Mankell or Larsson.

Finally, Declan Burke in the Irish Times puts Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman at the top of a list of “killer reads for the summer.” And And Kerrie reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon, a whydunnit that includes unraveling the investigators’ reasons for their actions as well as the killer’s.

Belated Backlog of Blogging Bits

There’s a fascinating interview by Lasse Winkler of Stieg Larsson translated in the The Telegraph. It’s apparently the only interview Larsson gave before his untimely death.  I found this bit especially interesting:

What, I asked, was the source of his inspiration? The basic idea had been knocking around for a while, he said. He’d been toying with it back in his days at the Swedish TT news agency where he worked as a graphic designer and occasional writer, from 1977 to 1999. At some point in the early to mid-Nineties, he and a fellow journalist, Kenneth Ahlborn, were working on an article about the classic detective stories that were popular with young readers in Sweden in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

“We were kidding around, talking about how you could write about those characters in their forties, when they were facing one last mystery,” he said. “That planted the seed, but nothing materialised back then.”

It was not until 2001 that Larsson stumbled upon the spark that would bring the Millennium trilogy into being. “I considered Pippi Longstocking,” he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, a girl so strong she could carry a horse. “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.” That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

But he felt Salander needed a counterweight if his story was to be a success. Once again he turned to one of Lindgren’s characters, this time to Kalle Blomkvist, boy detective. “Only now he’s 45 years old and a journalist [called Mikael Blomkvist]. An altruistic know-it-all who publishes a magazine called Millennium. The story will revolve around the people who work there.”

Larsson was well-versed in the mechanics of crime fiction. Every spring and autumn, back when he worked for the news agency, he was assigned to write reviews that summed up the season’s releases of translated crime fiction. “I’d include the top five crime novels at that particular time,” he said. “Some of the writers I’ve praised are Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters. Strangely enough, almost all are women.”

(I had to share that last comment with my colleagues at Sisters in Crime.)

Another interesting factoid in the interview is that Larsson hadn’t planned a particular number of books for the series (though it’s often said he had planned to write 10) but that he’d continue to write them so long as people wanted to read them. They were to be his retirement fund, since activist journalism wasn’t a secure income. How sad that he never got to enjoy the books’ success; it would have been fascinating to see how he responded to it.

Elsewhere, Peter points out that the CWA International Dagger shortlist is long on Nordic authors – Arnaldur Indridason (Hypothermia), Stieg Larsson (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest), and Johann Theorin (The Darkest Room).  Personally, I’m guessing of the non-Nordic half of contestants,  Deon Meyer has a pretty good shot.  But I’m almost always surprised by awards, so it’s a good thing I’m not a gambler.

And I’m used to Henning Mankell being in the news – but not this kind of news.  Mankell related his experience in The Daily Beast. More from Salon and The Guardian.

Lots of reviews to catch up on:

Kerrie reviews the audio version of Mankell’s The Fifth Woman from her perch in paradise; she gives it top marks.

Peter reviews Henning Mankell’s Before the Frost, which he considers good, if not the best in the series.

Pat Gray, who blogs under the moniker of Excitable Rat (the RATS are a group of librarians on a Reader’s Advisory Team) recommends Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room and says something I agree with: “I find the subtle, quiet tone of this book a delightful change from some of the American mysteries and thrillers with unending, screaming-level action from start to finish.”  She adds that this isn’t to say there isn’t action – it’s just not the main attraction.

Crime and Publishing reviews Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul To Take and likes the main character, though she somewhat overshadows her male counterpart. He concludes “a fine mixture of sombre landscapes, gruesomely inventive violence and sharp wit. A highly enjoyable read.”

A woman who reads a lot – and then reads some more – has some entertaining things to say about Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. A sample: “things start to get scary. They also get implausible.” On the whole she finds the book a mix of entertaining and tedious, but just the job when it’s handy on the library display shelf and “even tilting my head to read book spines on a shelf means I’m distracted enough to have my devil child run straight out of the library and into the road, and we don’t want that, do we.”

Dorte reviews the Swedish-language thriller Jeg ser dig (I See You) by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff and and says it’s “well-written and absorbing from the first page . . . a convincing debut” and predicts it will be translated into English.

She also reviews Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl´s thriller Drengen i Kufferten and says it’s the best Danish thriller she’s ever read. (These Danes must be very peaceable people to have so many writing collaborations.)

And she reports on a Faroese novel (what a novel idea!) by Jogvan Isaksen, Kormesse, which deals with environmentalists clashing with islanders trying to preserve a way of life.

She was busy during the month of May with the Scandinavian Reading Challenge (though she points out that what I’ve been calling Scandinavian is more properly called Nordic in her part of the world; Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are the purist’s Scandinavia.  The Scandinavian Reading Challenge continues – and it’s not too late to join.

Glenn Harper is disappointed in several books, including Christian Jungersen’s The Exception. Though he thinks the premise is brilliant, he found it hard to stick with the characters and the way they rub up against each other in the workplace.

Martin Edwards watches an episode of the Swedish Wallander series and uses it as an opportunity to ponder the balance that needs to be struck between plotting and preaching.

Zee who blogs at Notes from the North weighs in on the frequency of coffee-drinking in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and points out it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Swedes, who use fika – a coffee break – as a way to socialize and relax momentarily during the word day.  Sounds very civilized.

Sara, a journalism student in Helsinki, hasn’t generally been much of a reader of crime fiction, but was blown away by Jo Nesbo’s Panserhjerte (The Leopard) and is happily diving into the rest of the series.

Jane Sullivan of the Brisbane Times suggests what to read when you’ve run out of Larsson and haven’t read any other Swedish crime fiction.  I keep forgetting there are people who have read no Scandinavian crime other than what’s currently on the bestseller list.

At last, with the semester over and the workshop I gave this week in Chicago in the past, I hope I can begin blogging more regularly. My equally belated review of Hornet’s Nest should be online before too long, but long after everyone else has reviewed it.

Hornet’s Nest megahit megapost (with some catching up to do as well)

First, let’s deal with the US reception of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (I can’t help but wonder if there was an editorial/marketing meeting about that apostrophe – or if it was simply misplaced and never questioned.)

As so often happens, the New York Times reviews the book twice. (There’s a different review editor and group of reviewers for the daily paper than for the Sunday Book Review.) While they are both positive, they are very different. Michiko Kakutani thinks the series has matured and improved with each volume.

“Hornet’s Nest” is the last novel in Larsson’s Millennium series that Larsson, the crusading Swedish journalist, completed before his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004. It’s also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents.

The trilogy’s first installment, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” depended solely on the irresistible odd-couple appeal of Salander and Blomkvist as a new age Nick and Nora; its plot devolved into a preposterous mashup of bad serial-killer movies. The second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” attested to the author’s improved plotting abilities, moving backward into the past even as it accelerated toward a vicious and violent conclusion. Now, in “Hornet’s Nest,” Larsson effortlessly constructs an immensely complicated story line that owes less to the “Silence of the Lambs” horror genre than to something by John le Carré. . . .

The novels’ central appeal, however, remains Salander herself: a heroine who takes on a legal system and evil, cartoony villains with equal ferocity and resourcefulness; a damaged sprite of a girl who becomes a goth-attired avenging angel who can hack into any computer in the world and seemingly defeat any foe in hand-to-hand combat.The narratives of all three books are ultimately explorations of Salander’s past, and it is this past that explains the mysteries of her personality. For that matter, the page-turning suspense of these books has less to do with the pyrotechnics of Larsson’s often contrived plots than with the reader’s eagerness to understand how Salander came to be the way she is — why she is so leery of emotional commitment, why she has a deadly score to settle with her dreaded father, why she values survival above all else. . . .

At one point in “Hornet’s Nest,” a character observes: “when it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” But while this seems to have been a concept that fascinated Larsson — the original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Men Who Hate Women” — these novels actually don’t have any didactic thesis to convey.

David Kamp, whose review is on the coveted front page of the Book Review, finds it didactic and thinks the first book better than the second, which he calls cartoonish. (I’m with Michiko on this one. I found the pacing much better in the second, the characters more developed, the situation more believable and less a mish-mash of locked-room mystery meets sexually depraved deviants. But each to one’s own.) Kamp feels the third works as well as the first and that in spite of preachy moments and too much coffee drinking, it all works very well in the end.

. . . there are plenty of the Larssonian hallmarks they have come to love: the rough justice meted out by Salander to her enemies; the strong, successful female characters, like Blomkvist’s lawyer sister, Annika ­Giannini, and Millennium’s editor in chief, Erika Berger; and the characters’ acutely Swedish, acutely relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. . . . Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a lengthy article on the dispute over Larsson’s estate.  It reiterates the claim that Larsson had ten books planned and says they were to be his “pension fund.” It’s all very sad. But this bit also interested me:

Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, who bought the books for what he says now seems like a “very modest sum,” even worried that they might not catch on here. “I had nightmares that we would be the only country where the books didn’t work,” he says.

I didn’t think it would work either, not at the bestseller level. I assumed Americans, used to a diet of James Patterson Inc., wouldn’t have such a long attention span, quite frankly. I’m very pleased to find I was wrong.

Online, there’s an interactive feature on Larsson’s life and untimely death.

Last Sunday’s Op/Ed section also had an essay by Pat Ryan on Pippi and Salander.Both character share singular beginnings, an odd appearance, and “awesome skills.” Ryan writes,

An old colleague of Mr. Larsson’s has said they once talked about how certain characters from children’s books would manage and behave if they were older. Mr. Larsson especially liked the idea of a grown-up Pippi, a dysfunctional girl, probably with attention deficit disorder, who would have had a hard time finding a place in society but would nonetheless take a firm hand in directing her own destiny. That musing led to the creation of Lisbeth Salander, the central character in Mr. Larsson’s trilogy. . .

His fictional alter ego, Mikael Blomkvist, is a nod to another Lindgren character, the master detective Kalle Blomkvist. And the nameplate for Lisbeth’s new apartment reads “V. Kulla” — Pippi’s house was called Villa Villekulla. But don’t remind Lisbeth of her sunnier literary ancestor. “Somebody’d get a fat lip,” she says, “if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking.”

The Broad Street Review examines Salander as a feminist heroine and Steig Larsson as “currently the world’s most famous feminist author.” Marge Murray writes

What Ingmar Bergman did for Swedish private life— that is, expose its dark side— Larsson did for Swedish public life. His novels expose corruption and sexism in high places and provide a uniquely believable but heroic female figure to combat them. . . .

It is to Larsson’s credit that he created a heroic female figure— not a caricature, but a real three-dimensional creation. Lisbeth Salander, stranger than fiction, is a woman one can both empathize with and emulate.

Unlike other writers of crime fiction, Larsson overtly seeks to encourage feminist discourse and outrage. In effect Lisbeth is Larsson’s own version of a grown-up Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lingren’s unconventional, assertive and intuitive nine-year-old fictitious character. Where Pippi talks back to and makes fun of adults with alacrity, Lisbeth inflicts bodily harm on the private parts of her male tormentors.

Ellen Key, the Swedish social reformer and philosopher, has written that the emancipation of women was the greatest movement of the 19th Century. Larsson believed that the issue of women’s rights was not solved in that century. He contended that it is today’s biggest problem. His saga gives voice to the struggle of women in so-called emancipated nations like Sweden and, by association, the U.S. and the rest of the European Union. His novels may or may not change society. What can be said with certainty, however, is that Larsson is one hell of a read.

Richard Schickel reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times and isn’t very impressed with the literary quality of the books – he thinks Mankell, Nesbo, and Fossum all superior – and he puts the trilogy’s success down to – who else? – the Girl of the title.

I think Salander represents something new and unique in this genre. She’s a tiny bundle of post-modernist tropes, beginning with her computer skills. I know there are other crime novels featuring similarly gifted people — though I can’t tell from the examples Larsson gives whether her talent is genuine or pure nonsense. But that’s not important; the point is that she has an enviable mastery of a technology that is bound to impress Larsson’s gawking readership.

But that’s only the beginning of her singularity. She does not, for example, use her computer solely for crime-solving. She has also hacked her way into a multimillion-dollar fortune, which she keeps offshore and mainly uses for selfish purposes — like breast enhancement. She dresses badly, refuses to speak when authority figures — psychiatrists, cops — question her about her activities and, despite her tiny size, she is a martial-arts expert and deadly with guns. She’s also bisexual.

Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books’ nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them. . . .

On the other hand, this irony keeps straying into one’s mind: In her vengeful, anti-establishment anger and propensity to violence, Lisbeth Salander is — that’s right — a perfect tea party heroine, a minor, accidental avatar of our scary new political climate. One is free to imagine her decent-minded creator shuddering in his grave at this unintended consequence of his venture into sub-literature.

I wish two things about this review: one, that he did not use the phrase “sub-literature,” particularly after praising other crime fiction authors. Second, that if he was going to accuse readers of being so indiscriminate in their understanding of the political and social issues in the book, that he did more than assume it is on the bestseller list because a) readers are too ignorant to understand the feminist subtext and b) the feminism of the books is overwhelmed by a strong heroine’s inherent anti-intellectual fascist tendencies. The more I think about it, the more infuriating I find this review.

(I’d like pause a moment to propose a maxim for reviewers: say what you honestly think about a book, but please, don’t insult its readers. You’re reviewing a BOOK for god’s sake, not evaluating the intelligence of those who enjoy it. That’s just a cheap way to show off. And a suggestion for review editors – don’t give a book to reviewers who despise the genre it’s in. That’s all – thank you.)

A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle thinks this is the weakest of the three books and found it slow, “droll” (I suspect the writer meant “dull”) and hard to follow. USA Today also finds it not pacey enough and predicts fans will be disappointed.

But though a reviewer for the Herald in Madison County, Mississippi, thinks it could be pacier, he (or she) is willing to slow down, knowing it’s the last, feeling the same pangs as when reading the final installment in the Harry Potter series. “I’m really going to miss Stieg Larsson and his brave band of heroes, just like I miss Harry, Ron and Hermione. Reads like these don’t come around often enough. Savor the prose; cherish the characters.”

And if the US covers have left you scratching your head, Karen Meek has unearthed this explanation from Knopf. I love hearing from designers about their thought process.

Peter [Mendelsund, who has his own blog] chose to use a more abstract, but bold, image.

Knopf’s twist was achieved with the subtle interaction of the Trade Gothic type and a great piece of art in yellow and orange Day-Glo inks. Add a dash of cyan (shades of colors in the blue/green spectrum) to create the green dragon lurking in the background and a tablespoon of black for the title, flap copy, and Stieg’s photo, and voilà!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s jacket colors create an unconscious sense of danger, flashing a warning to readers to proceed with caution, as they may find this story dangerous, seductive, and gripping. Once it has you, there is no exit, no U-turn. The use of the dragon imagery on the jacket might seem incongruous with we know of Sweden, but the dragon cues us to the underlying differences between what we know and the author wants to show us. Larson’s Sweden is not place just filled with coffee shops, cold vistas, and IKEAs. It is a place where women and children are victims of powerful men and the system punishes those who are different or who deviant from the norm. Salander’s tattoo is as jarring as she is within the context of the pseudo-sanitized Swedish setting. The combination of the dragon’s symbolism and the flashy garishness of the neon colors clue us into the dark and spiraling adventure of Larsson’s thriller.

In other news . . .

Powell’s is having a sale on Scandinavian crime fiction.

Maxine offers her third installment on her response to the Swedish Book Review’s special issue on  crime fiction.

Glenn Harper reviews Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and wishes it lived up to the promise of its opening chapters.

Caite reviews The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum, giving it a thorough analysis and finding it both challenging and rewarding.

Cinema Cafe goes to the source before viewing the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and is impressed, finding it absorbing and complex and addictive – “like crack on paper.” (I thought that was acid . . . )

Shannon Schwantes reviews the Italian film version of Karin Fossum’s novel Don’t Look Back. It has been retitled The Girl by the Lake (La Ragazza del lago) and the action has shifted to Italy. Since we’re reading this book in my first term seminar next fall, I’m hoping to get a copy of this film; it would be interesting to compare versions.

Spinetingler thinks Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star has a complex plot worthy of its complex hero – and is well-written to boot.

The Weekend Argus (South Africa) has a Reuters story that start out on a snarky note – “Take a fictional female detective who inspects crime scenes in the morning, interrogates her suspects at noon and picks up her three-year-old at daycare after work. Now call it Nordic noir and await the accolades” – but then describes it as “starkly detailed, tightly plotted, often interwoven with social themes” – quoting Jo Nesbo and Jan Guillou on the impact Mankell and Stieg Larsson have had on foreign interest in Scandinavian crime. It sounds as if a criticism of the “femikrimi” that Dorte writes about got grafted onto another story.

And last, but far from least, this excellent article: Nordic Noir has a lengthy and fascinating post on Swedish neutrality during World War II, the neo-Nazi movement, and the uneasy relationship Swedes have with the past. (This is certainly also the case with Norway, which was occupied.) She proposes a thought-provoking and valuable theory:

. . . perhaps one can argue that Swedish noir gains life in part because of a vague, disturbing sense that truly terrible secrets lie just below the surface of everyday, prosperous life.  It’s enough for any sleuth (whether a detective, reporter or fiction writer) to ponder at length.  One wonders if the very hiddenness of it constitutes its own kind of collaboration—and wonders, as well, how it actually affects Swedish culture.  For in the case of Nazism in Sweden, it’s harder to always characterize evil as ‘over there’ in Germany—it’s homegrown, and not yet fully accounted for.

One reason I find this so compelling is that it takes Bill Ott’s idea that post-cold-war immigration has played a role in the rise of crime fiction in Scandinavia and situates it in modern history, linking a past that is hidden with a present that is revealing tensions that could be ignored in a less multicultural society.