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. 


1. Maxine said...

Welcome back, Michael! Glad you enjoyed your holiday, and I hope you are refreshed for a vigorous assault on the blogosphere. Great minds, in fact, as I just posted about Mike Ripley's column also - with the basic message "each [reader] unto his/her own". I thought his review of Theorin's superb "The Darkest Room" funny but wrongheaded. That's fine, he's entitled to his views. Sorry you did not enjoy the 2nd Stieg Larsson - I agree with you about the first 200 pages or so (I can only think that the author comes back to this theme in book 3 or intended to in one of the books in the series he never wrote) - but I liked the rest of it. I could not put it down last Christmas, in me sad! Like you, I enjoyed The Redeemer very much, sympathetically translated by Don Bartlett, whom I increasingly confuse with Harry Hole! He's just translated a Gunner Staalesen novel which I shall read soon.

2. Michael+Walters said...

Thanks for the response, Maxine. I'm still not sure to what extent Mike Ripley was simply being provocative - and part of me is always pleased to hear dissident views! As for the Larsson, I felt rather uncomfortable posting such a negative review (not that anyone will care much), but I did so in a spirit of enquiry. It's not often that I find my views so far out of step with those of people whose opinions I respect (including yourself and indeed the great 'Reg Keeland'). Usually, even if I'm not personally enamoured of a book, I can see why others don't share my view. I enjoyed the first Larsson very much - if anything, its discursive, slightly 'shaggy dog' style added to its charm, enabling me to lose myself in the world that Larsson had created. Perhaps my expectations for the second were too high, but I just found myself growing increasingly disengaged and irritated by the characters and plot. But I'd be very interested to hear other views. If nothing else, Larsson certainly provokes debate. And, perhaps oddly, I'm now sufficiently intrigued that I'm looking forward to the third one...

My reading of Nesbo has also raised my admiration for Don Bartlett. While I've no idea how Nesbo reads in the original, Bartlett seems to have established the perfect deadpan tone for the narrative and the dialogue (and, in particular, for Hole's voice), and I imagine that that is no small translation achievment. I must give Gunner Staalesen a go.

3. Dorte+H said...

I do feel free to disagree with you as I liked all of Stieg Larssonīs books, especially for the character of Lisbeth Salander (aka Pippi Longstocking). You are certainly entitled to your own opinion, and I think it is more important that you acknowledge that "it's impossible to generalise about Scandinavian crime". For a Scandinavian crime fiction lover that is obvious, and one can only hope Mr Ripley will also see the light ;)

4. Michael Walters said...

Thanks, Dorte. I should say that I'm a tremendous enthusiast for Scandinavian crime fiction in general, and of course it is enormously diverse. I think Mike Ripley's depiction of it as gloomy or humourless is an uncharacteristically lazy bit of stereotyping, as well as being simply wrong. My impression is that much Scandinavian fiction exhibits an often dry humour which is very similar in tone to the British. As for Steig Larsson, well, it's obvious that many, many people disagree with me. I enjoyed the first very much, so I'll be intrigued to read the third.

Incidentally, congratulations on your own blog - I find it a really useful source of information and always an excellent read.

5. Dorte+H said...

Oh! Thanks a lot! And so is yours.

6. Michael Walters said...

Many thanks, Dorte. I notice from your blog that you're based in West Denmark. I had a splendid holiday on the west coast a couple of years ago - a really beautiful and atmospheric place.

7. Dorte+H said...

Actually, we are staying out there right now. Our old vicarage is having a new roof so we are in our cottage one km from the North Sea - which we of course call the West Sea ;)
Very beautiful, as you say, but also dangerous. Sadly, many of our German tourists realize this too late.

By the way, it is quite difficult to get past your gates. Even with proper glasses on.

8. Michael Walters said...

Yes, I know - I'm sorry about that. I'll have to see if there's something that can be done. I envy you being on the coast - I can imagine it would be dangerous, but it is beautiful. I loved walking on the dunes in the early evening - gloriously atmospheric and slightly spooky with all the WW2 detritus. Having just returned from similarly beautiful NW Scotland, I suppose I could have waved to you across the sea! When we there, I was struck that, despite your being once of our closest neighbours, there were almost no Brits around (though countless Germans!). But, while it's easy to fly to Copenhagen, the west is remarkably inaccessible from the UK. But I hope to come back again before too long.

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