It concerns Swedish investigative journalist Mikail Blomkvist, editor of the political journal Millennium, who is brought down by a capitalist he tried to expose and as a result becomes involved with Henrik Vanger, head of a business family with a shadowy past including Nazism and the disappearance in the sixties of Vanger’s sixteen-year-old niece Harriet who has never been seen again, presumed dead. Vanger engages Blomkvist, who has had to leave his editorship, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family but in reality to investigate Harriet’s disappearance. He is helped in this quest by an unconventional private investigator, the tough punk Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker and previous problem child who in her twenties is still, according to the Swedish system, under state care.
It’s a long book – 538 pages - and one of the strange aspects of its success is that it seems to be generally agreed (on Twitter etc) that for the first 100 pages or so it’s pretty boring, with lots of expositionary backstory concerning the court case and the investigation which led to Blomkvist’s conviction and downfall.
Well, the gist of the meeting was that everyone thought it was pretty rubbishy but everyone liked it apart from John who found he couldn’t read it, and me, although I have to admit that for the sake of argument I was more negative in the meeting than I actually felt, as outlined on my Fictionbitch blog.
The first person to comment was Jenny, who has read all three of the books, and who said she absolutely loved the character Lisbeth Salander, and there were murmurs of agreement. In fact, I didn't find Salander entirely convincing as a character, though I didn't say this: there seemed inconsistency rather than complexity in the way she was portrayed as streetwise yet now and then naive. Everyone pretty much agreed that the book was poorly written, and that indeed for the first 100 pages or so Larsson seemed to be learning, in a very fundamental way, to write. There is far too much exposition, much telling the reader instead of showing, and Larsson will suddenly launch into a non-novelistic essay informing the reader about such things as the Swedish state care system. Not to mention the author’s relish in the tedious details of computers which may have been state-of-the art at the time of writing, but which are now outdated. Although people had said they liked Salander, they all agreed that there was no real psychological insight in the book. And everyone, even accountant Doug, agreed that the end of the book, which deals with Blomkvist’s comeback and the details of the financial scandal he finally does expose, is even more boring than the beginning.
I said that it reminded me of nothing so much as reading Enid Blyton when I was a child, especially the way the food is described in such painstaking and often inappropriate detail. I read out this passage which occurs just after Blomkvist and Salander have escaped from a torture chamber, Blomkvist himself having been tortured:
She helped him off with his clothes and propelled him to the bathroom. Then she put on water for coffee and made half a dozen thick sandwiches on rye bread with cheese and liver sausage and dill pickles (my italics)
and everyone fell about laughing.
As I said on my Fictionbitch blog, this is probably the first book we’ve read for the group that I didn’t find in any way disruptive to my own creative writing process, and everyone agreed that that was the point, it was meant merely as a diversion. Clare said it was like chocolate, just something easy to swallow, and Ann said she’d had some long train journeys recently and it had been great for that, to pass the time. I said that that was my objection, really: ultimately, I really didn’t want to read a book just to pass the time, but for something much more fruitful; to me it was a waste of time. John said I was precious, and from the reaction of the others he was speaking for them too, but it was really rich coming from him since he hadn’t even read past page 50 or so. And Ann added that she’d liked reading about the food and finding out about the things Swedes ate, and the fact that they drank so much coffee, and others agreed.
Then Ann addressed the question of why this book, above other crime thrillers, has been so very popular. She thought that certain crime series are popular because they happen to hit particular chords in the societies and times in which they are written, and there was a fair bit of discussion about other crime writers members had read. Jenny said that this book was about violence to women: indeed, the parts that the book is divided into are subtitled with quotes from Swedish statistics on violence to women, and the original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women. I said that in fact it ticked several of our current concerns to which the theme of violence towards women is somewhat subsumed: corruption in big business, the Nazi past with which we continue to be obsessed, and big-brother surveillance and computer hacking.
But I didn’t think it actually really addressed these issues, not on the psychological level I want from novels (in spite of what some critics have said about Larsson’s anatomization of the mind of a serial killer). What for instance, was Larsson saying about Nazism? (I can’t explain any further without giving the plot away.) There was a pause as people thought, and then someone said, ‘Nazis are bad.’ And I said ‘Exactly. Nothing deeper or more psychological than that.’