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.

it all goes back to childhood

Thanks to a comment posted here, I discovered DJ’s Krimiblog – which offers commentary on Scandinavian mysteries in both Danish and English translation. There’s a fascinating analysis of the parallels between Larsson’s crusading journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, to Astrid Lindgren’s series about a boy detective, Kalle Blomqvist.

Mikael Blomkvist does not appear in the prologue but on the first page of chapter one it is clear that Stieg Larsson deliberately draws parallels to Astrid Lindgren´s trilogy about the boy detective Kalle Blomkvist (first published 1949-56; Bill Bergson in English), “´Let us have a comment Kalle Blomkvist´ said the journalist from one of the tabloids.” The parallel is elaborated on the following pages where we get a background story telling us how Mikael as a very young journalist exposed a gang of bank robbers almost by accident, and earned immediate fame plus an obvious nickname. Mikael himself is not exactly thrilled, “Never an evil word about Astrid Lindgren – he loved her books, but hated the pet name.”

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is sympathetic to the annoyance of a grown-up journalist being likened to a children’s book hero, saying “Somebody’s get a fat lip if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking.” But there are some intriguing parallels. Pippi is resourceful, independent, a child without adults to supervise or stand in the way. She is incredibly strong and has adventures that go far beyond what children normally experience. But she is, above all, a child who lives alone. That power and independence comes with wrenching loneliness.

It’s telling that, when the journalist examines the cottage where the missing child lived, there are copies of both Kalle Blomqvist and Pippi Longstocking stories among the mix of books there – and Blomqvist smiles in recognition.