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Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: The Millennium Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I came late to the game for the first novel of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, I had a copy of the mass market paperback edition of the novel for almost six months before I decided to read it. But then, I quickly devoured it and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, over the course of a week, wanting to do little more than read during that time. When the final novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, came out at the end of May, I tried to savor it a little more, but I still burned through the final 200 pages in an afternoon. I cannot remember a time that I was so obsessed with a series of novels–there were a few weeks back in 1992 where I was reading a Jim Thompson novel a day, but that’s the last I remember.

I also can’t remember a publishing phenomenon geared toward adult readers that so deserved its success based purely on the quality of the work. Certainly not The DaVinci Code, which, while a fast read, forgoes characters and replaces them with information dumping vehicles while also tranforming art appreciation into codebreaking. But the reasons for the success of Larsson’s books may be a bit difficult to pin down. Apparently, their popularity is due primarily to word of mouth. In the most basic explanation, The Millennium Trilogy succeeds because it ties gripping mystery plots with wholly formed, fascinating, yet damaged characters in its two main investigators, investigative reporter and publisher of Millennium magazine Mikael Blomqvist and punk researcher Lisbeth Salander. And while the steam does run out a bit in the middle of the third novel, the finale is an immensely satisfying conclusion that wraps the series up nicely.

On the surface, though, these novels seem like unlikely successes. The first 150 pages or so of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are filled with infomation on Sweden’s political, economic, and legal systems, and by the end of the third novel, the reader has learned quite a bit about twentieth-century Swedish political history. But in the midst of that is a series of mysteries that begins with the 40-year-old disappearance of a teenage girl on an isolated Swedish island and ends with a scandal that wracks the entire Swedish government.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with a deliciously simple mystery: thirty-six years earlier, a teenage girl disappears from the island home of the wealthy Vanger family during a period that no one could get on or off the island due to a severe traffic accident that cut off the only bridge to the mainland. This large-scale locked room mystery haunts family patriarch Henrik Vanger for decades until, coming to the end of his life, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who has recently lost a libel suit against a powerful industrialist. The novel takes its time to tease out the mystery, and like a true reporter, Blomqvist chases down various dead-ends along the way, most of which flesh out the Vanger family’s sordid history. However, the plot is also punctuated by moments of extreme violence, especially the brutal rape that Lisbeth Salander experiences, which also sets up the plots for the next two novels.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fit together as if they were one long novel, and it might have been better for the last novel if they were. Hints from the first novel about Lisbeth Salander’s traumatic past are fleshed out here, and we learn that her life has been dramatically affected by a government cover-up that goes to the highest levels of Swedish politics. So, while the first novel fits solidly within the mystery genre, the second and third are closer to espionage novels, especially those of the 1970s, where an intrepid reporter would expose government corruption (think of a less depressing version of The Parallax View).

The investigations in each novel are always very methodical, though important revelations often hinge on Lisbeth getting some crucial information off of someone’s poorly protected home computer. As the political impact of the plots in the later novels grows, more investigators become involved, and by the third novel, there are at least four investigative units tracking down the same information. Because of that, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest becomes a bit repetitive in the middle, and the bad guys tend to remain somewhat dormant while the various investigators are at work. In addition, Blomqvist stays so far ahead of the bad guys in his investigation that his plan moves forward with a sense of inevitability and a lack of dramatic tension. But despite the novel’s predictability, the courtroom finale and subsequent epilogue are still exciting and satisfying, especially considering how we’ve been waiting to see the bad guys get their due for two novels.

The third novel is also dragged down a bit by an extraneous subplot involving Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s publishing partner in Millennium magazine and occasional lover. Berger quits Millennium when she’s offered a job as editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper, and her tenure there is immediately darkened by a stalker whose tactics become exponentially more dangerous. Not only would this plot lift right out of the novel without doing damage to the overall narrative, but it ends in such a predictable and pedestrian way that it becomes disappointing in light of what has come before. It almost seems as if the plot were added to give the novel some dramatic tension while the rest of the novel was moving toward its inevitable conclusion.

The two main characters are most frequently cited as the reasons for these novels’ success. Lisbeth Salander is certainly a unique contemporary detective: a brilliant punk hacker with serious personality issues that may be Asperger’s. Mikael Blomqvist, however, is a bit of a throwback to an old-school style of investigative journalist while also serving as a “Mary Sue”–a fantasy version of Larsson himself. Like Blomqvist, Larsson was an investigative reporter who started his own magazine. However, Blomqvist also gets laid all the time and is virtually irresistible to women, despite the fact that he is middle-aged and slightly out of shape. Women are attracted to him because he’s “uncomplicated,” as we repeatedly hear throughout the novels. While his failure to maintain a serious romantic relationship comes under criticism from his sister and other women in his life, he doesn’t see a real impetus to change. On top of that, he’s so much damn smarter than everyone else, and that, again, draws away from the dramatic tension in the final novel. To Larsson’s credit, though, Blomqvist remains a charming and engaging character who we root for in his efforts to bring down the most corrupt in business and government.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story this week on The Millennium Trilogy, explaining the fascinating story behind the novels. Stieg Larsson completed the three novels before the first was even published, and he died tragically before seeing the first’s success. According to Entertainment Weekly, Larsson’s partner of 30 years may have about 250 pages of a fourth novel stored on her laptop, but that may never see the light of day due to legal problems with Larsson’s family. Other reports state that Larsson had plans for a ten-book sequence. Such information made me a bit nervous about the final novel. The first two ended with loose plot threads–or in the case of The Girl Who Played with Fire, a huge cliffhanger–and I worried that the same would be true of the third. However, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does come to a satisfying conclusion that makes future novels unnecessary (the Berger stalker plot in Hornet’s Nest could easily be setting up the fourth novel as well, which would give further justification to its inclusion here).

EW also reports that David Fincher is set to direct the English-language films of the trilogy (Swedish versions have already been made and released), though no casting decisions have been made. Fincher is a good choice, especially if he approaches the first film more like Zodiac than Se7en by focusing in on the methodical, multi-tiered investigation. He’s also going to keep the film set in Sweden, which is going to fit his visual style well. Despite the adage that film adaptations are usually disappointing, I have some high hopes for Fincher’s films.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire by Gabriel Hunt with Christa Faust

Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is the fourth book in the Gabriel Hunt series of adventure novels created by Charles Ardai, founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint. The conceit of the series is that modern adventurer Gabriel Hunt authors each novel (though, curiously, none are narrated in the first person) with the help of a different writer. So far, the series has been a mixed bag, but even at their weakest, the novels remain entertaining and diverting. However, Christa Faust’s contribution to the series, Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire, cuts loose with the potential that this series has to offer, telling a riveting, action-packed story that is goofy as hell but a heck of a lot of fun.

The premise of the series is fairly straightforward and contains within it the potential for entertaining pulp adventures. Gabriel Hunt is a modern day Indiana Jones-style adventurer who seeks out lost and legendary antiquities with the support of his family’s $100 million Hunt Foundation, led by his more practical brother, Michael (I sincerely hope that Ardai intended that name as a joke). Gabriel is haunted by the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, when they were last seen on a cruise ship that was attacked by pirates several years earlier. As can be expected, Gabriel’s adventures often require him to team up with female scientists and archeologists. In addition, the novels offer a bit of continuity: the immediately preceding adventure is referenced in each new novel.

Of the four Hunt novels published so far, Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is the best. Ardai’s contribution, Hunt through the Cradle of Fear, is a close second, providing an entertaining dose of world history as Gabriel Hunt searches for Homer’s lost epic of Oedipus and the secret of the sphinx. However, the first novel, Hunt at the Well of Eternity by James Reasoner, reads like a series of action set-pieces loosely held together by a plot, and does little to make the hero a compelling character. The third, Nicholas Kaufmann’s Hunt at World’s End, shows signs of strain in the series’ basic premise, as we get yet another instance of Hunt chasing after a lost artifact while being pursued by a villainous antiquities collector–basically, the same plot from the previous two novels.

Faust (who also wrote the fantastic, sexy Hard Case Crime novel Money Shot) cleverly eschews that particular plot formula as Gabriel’s adventure takes him to Antarctica to find a missing scientist, Dr. Lawrence Silver, whose daughter, Velda, has sought out Hunt’s assistance. Prior to the introduction of Velda Silver, however, Faust gives us a mini-adventure where Hunt must recover a legendary kindjal (some kind of decorative knife) from his female nemesis, Dr. Fiona Rush, in an ancient Moldovan temple. This opening adventure teases us with a little welcome bait-and-switch–it seems like Faust is giving us a plot that resembles the first three novels, but what follows ends up being quite pleasantly different.

For the Antarctic adventure, Hunt puts together a crack supporting team: Rue Aparecido, a top mechanic who can pilot or drive anything with a motor and who also happens to be Hunt’s former lover; and Maximillian “Millie” Ventrose, a giant fighter who will serve as the muscle on the adventure. Rue also has experience in Antarctica, and Gabriel hopes that will help them cut through the red tape that might hinder their expedition. In Antarctica, they also team up with Nils, a scientific partner of Dr. Silver who will help lead them to the last place anyone heard from the missing scientist.

The rest of the novel is filled with some pretty damn clever and entertaining twists and turns that are best left as surprises, because most of the enjoyment of this novel comes from the pure joy generated from Faust’s creative choices. Faust is clearly having a lot of fun here–most of the characters spend at least half of the novel naked or nearly so, due to the requirements of the plot, of course–and that fun is contagious. Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is a blast, and I hope it serves as the model for future entries in this series.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Memory by Donald E. Westlake

Billed as Donald Westlake’s “final novel,” Memory is actually an early novel, written in the 1960s but never published, by the great mystery and noir writer. Following the writer’s death in December 2008, Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai announced the aquisition of this unpublished work, which had been rejected by Westlake’s agent early in the writer’s career. Memory, in fact, is barely a crime novel: it begins with a crime, and it does have a noirish feel; plus, there is something of a mystery involved. Police occasionally get involved. But it hues closer to a late modernist meditation on identity and its connections to memory than it does to the crime novels that would become Westlake’s stock in trade. It’s like a Virginia Woolf novel without the formal experimentation or stream-of-consciousness style, or Kafka minus the nightmare landscape.

Paul Cole is an actor in a travelling company, having an affair with one of his co-stars in a small-town hotel when suddenly, her husband bursts in. The husband raises a chair, and Paul screams out “What are you doing?

The next paragraph begins with a nurse looking over Paul, and in the gap between the two paragraphs is a loss of memory that Paul will never recover. It’s a nice stylistic trick that Westlake pulls off here because, on the first page of the book, the reader is disoriented in a way that mirrors Paul’s experience and puts the reader in a position of sympathy with the protagonist. Also in that gap, Paul sustains a head injury that causes not traditional amnesia, but a gradual loss of memory that removes not only his past before the injury, but most new memories that he accrues after.

Paul is discharged from the hospital with very little money left and a sheriff on his back who wants to see the adulterer run out of town. Though he cannot remember much of his past life, he knows from the identification in his wallet that he is from New York City, and the thought of returning to his home in hopes of triggering his lost memory drives Paul forward. With what little money he has, Paul buys a bus ticket to go as far east as possible, which means the small town of Jeffords. In Jeffords, he tries to find a way to earn the money that will get him to New York, but due to a series of mistakes resulting from his gradually declining memory, this process takes months. Meanwhile, he builds a nice life for himself in Jeffords: working in a tanning plant, living in a boarding house with a nice couple, making friends, and building a romantic relationship with a young woman named Edna. However, the need to return to New York constantly nags at him even when he forgets exactly what he wants to find there.

The pieces of his life in Jeffords remain with Paul, even as he tries desperately to rebuild his past while also attempting to retain the new memories that he makes. Paul starts writing notes to himself to remind him of the most mundane details of his life, but as his memory regresses, these notes take on a more cryptic quality to him. Like a character in a Kafka story, Paul also faces a hostile world where government bureaucrats are indifferent to his problems and every barely-remembered friend could be a potential threat waiting to take advantage of his condition. Westlake builds sympathy for his protagonist by building up hope that the lost memory will eventually be recovered. However, as Paul loses even the memories of events that take place in the novel itself, the likelihood of that recovery diminishes.

In Paul Cole, Westlake created a compelling protagonist. As he tries to piece together his past, he sees a brash, young actor on the verge of career success that sharply contrasts the quiet, insecure amnesiac that he’s become. While Memory is by no means Westlake’s best work, it is also far from a failed early novel that deserved to be languishing in the bottom of a drawer for 50 years. Fans of Westlake will see early signs of his strength as a novelist while also getting a dark novel that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of his considerable oeuvre. And although the novel holds up on its own as a compelling read, those new to Westlake might be better off starting elsewhere, especially with one of the other great Westlake novels that Hard Case Crime has resurrected, like 361, Lemons Never Lie (written as Richard Stark), Somebody Owes Me Money, or The Cutie.