Thursday, August 27, 2009

Playing with fire

Welcome back (assuming there's still anyone out there).  More or less back in the harness now after two weeks of walks along splendid windswept Scottish beaches, pints of excellent Black Isle Brewery beer, and some really superb food.  And even the weather was reasonably kind. 

I see that, while I've been away, the irrepressible Mike Ripley has set the cat among the proverbials with some disparaging remarks about Scandinavian crime fiction.  I don't agree with much of what the talented Mr Ripley says here (though I do generally), although he probably has a point about the 'me too' tendency which drives publishers constantly to look for more of the same.  But 'twas ever thus, I suppose.

I was particularly struck by Mike Ripley's comments because, as it happened, much of my holiday reading (more limited than usual, this year, for some reason) was focused on the Scandinavians.  I was particularly pleased finally to get round to Jo Nesbo's latest in English, The Redeemer.  Typically excellent, I thought, and Nesbo alone disproves Mike Ripley's characterisation of the Scandinavians as humourless.  Harry Hole's deadpan wit strikes me as every bit as amusing as Andy Dalziel's earthy humour (and I bow to no-one in my admiration for the great Reginald Hill).  In fact, now I think of it, Nesbo reminds me rather of Hill - a similar growing cast of memorable characters, a similar liking for complex plotting and clever structures, and a similar ability to move from the comic to the serious without missing a beat. 

But, of course, it's impossible to generalise about Scandinavian crime, and one person's pickled herring is another's poison.  This was forcibly brought home to me when, also on holiday, I finally got around to reading Steig Larsson's second Millennium book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.  This is one of those moments when I almost hesitate to toss in my two penn'orth of opinion because I feel so far out of step with what appears to be most of the rest of humankind. 

For what it's worth (nothing, given the book's worldwide sales), I really didn't like it.  I very much enjoyed the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite its oddly discursive style, because I was able to lose myself in its world and its characters.  The second book, though, just didn't engage me.  Partly, as with the first, there's a problem of editing (or lack of it) - the book starts with a 120 plus prologue which, unless Larsson returns to it in the third book, has nothing to do with anything that follows.  And we also get, to take just one example, an extended description of the heroine's visit to Ikea including a listing of every item purchased.  I hate visiting Ikea on my own account.  I certainly don't want to have to accompany a fictional character to the place. 

I can see that, given that the books were published in this form in Swedish and that Larsson is sadly no longer around to approve any changes, editing is problematic. But a bigger problem for me was that, for all its 600 and more pages, the book didn't seem to have much of a plot.  The heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is accused of the murder of two journalists investigating sex trafficking.  This in turn is apparently linked to some grand political conspiracy, and some secret about Salander herself.  But, whereas Nesbo would have constructed some intricate jigsaw pulling all these elements together, here all we get is a series of implausible coincidences and not-very-startling revelations.  And, whereas in the first novel Larsson laced the plot with fascinating digressions into Swedish politics and finance, here the sex trafficking theme feels like little more than a plot device.  

This probably wouldn't matter too much if I'd been hooked by the characters and background.  Here, the characters felt increasingly two-dimensional.  The hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is given little to do.  The police are largely cyphers.  And the much-praised Salander seems, in this book, to have as much depth (and, for that matter, relevance to the feminist cause) as Lara Croft.  In fact, the whole thing has rather the air of a video game, right down to the characters' apparent indestructibility. 

I read the book with genuine surprise and disappointment, because the critical consensus is that this one is even better than the first.  And certainly the vast majority of reviewers (even those who expressed some of the same reservations) and the millions who have purchased the book worldwide don't share my view.  I should say that, while I'm always happy to enthuse about anything I like (in the hope that you might like it too), I don't normally post negative reviews because - well, it's just my opinion and who needs it? But in this case I don't imagine that Steig Larsson's worldwide sales are going be to too heavily dented by anything I might say, and I'm genuinely intrigued by the gap between my views and those expressed by other readers. So, if you read the book and liked it, please feel free to disagree with me.  As vehemently as you like. 

Monday, August 17, 2009

All quiet on the northern front

Just a quick note to apologise for the silence on here for the last week or two.  I'm currently on holiday up in the Scottish Highlands.  Fine views of the Moray Firth, but unfortunately limited internet access until now.  The upside is that I've had plenty of time both to write and to read, including Jo Nesbo's latest in English, The Redeemer, and Steig Larsson's second Millennium book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.  I thought the Nesbo was terrific, while the second Larsson, while enjoyable,  left me as bemused as the first.  But I'll post some more considered thoughts soon.  In the meantime, I'll go and stare at the sea some more.