Thursday, April 15, 2010

A (very) adult Pippi Longstocking

I rarely read crime novels, but I've made an exception for the "Millennium" trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. I got the first one - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - to see what all the excitement was about, and because I thought its characters and settings might be good preparation for my first visit to Sweden last month. Initially dismayed by the proliferation of detail on the genealogy of a complex industrial dynasty with skeletons in every closet, I was hooked when Larsson slipped a remarkable heroine in through a side door. Lisbeth Salander is a tiny tattooed Goth type mistaken for a homeless kid, a low-rent hooker and a psychotic retard. Though lacking in social graces, Salander is a world-class investigator with a photographic memory, the problem-solving skills of a math prodigy, and the martial arts prowess to leave a gang of local Hell's Angels in the dirt. With brain and fists and hacking skills and tasers, she fights men who hate and abuse women until you want to get up and cheer.
As I eagerly followed this fiery waif through her further adventures in The Girl who Played with Fire (in which she takes on white slavers in edgy alliance with the author's journalistic alter ego Mikael Blomkvist) it hit me that Larsson has produced a Pippi Longstocking ("the strongest girl in the world") for mature audiences. There are in-your-face clues scattered throughout Larsson's books, including a cover name Salander borrows from the name of Pippi's house in the woods (Villekulla Cottage). When I visited Stockholm, I discovered that Salander's fictional address on Lundagatan is just down the street from the actual home of Pippi's creator, Astrid Lindgren, overlooking the park that now bears Astrid's name.
The Girl who Played with Fire is so much better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - the plot more tightly woven, the characters more deeply and sharply defined - that I couldn't wait for the US edition of the third novel in the trilogy (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) to be published so I'm now reading the UK edition, which I had shipped from across the big pond.

The publishing history of a trilogy that has now sold over 25 million copies is as strange as anything in the novels. Stieg Larsson died of a huge heart attack, aged only 50, in 2004. He had received death threats from neo-Nazi groups he had made it his business, as a journalist, to expose, and was mixed up in extreme-left politics, so naturally conspiracy theories have flourished, though no evidence of foul play had turned up. He had completed three novels out of a projected series of ten when he died, but had only recently made contact with a Swedish publisher. He said he wrote when he couldn't sleep and to get his mind off his worries. Everything about him is now contested except the success of his fiction. A Swedish biographer who claims to have known him well maintains that he couldn't be the author of the novels because he was a lousy writer, a claim angrily rejected by Larsson's legions of admirers. Larsson's long-term girlfriend has been denied any share in his estate because he left no valid will.
PS: Halfway through The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest anyone who has managed to miss the Pippi Longstocking connection will finally "get" it.


Justin Patrick Moore said...

Now YOU are adding to MY reading list...:)

Patricia said...

I just loved the whole series and was bereft to hear of his death. I was delighted however to see that the film version of the first novel is a very good adaptation of the book. Adaptations are rarely true to the essence of the book. The movie is very explicit in some scenes and now I'm looking forward to the next and the next after that. Enjoy the Hornet's Nest, It's a corker. Sorry to hear of his girlfriend. Sometimes, life just ain't fair. In the meantime, someone out there is reaping the rewards of his labours.
Patrici from Oz

Alla said...

I begin to feel desperate... My brain seems to slip; the amount of data I'm loading in it on a daily basis overwhelms its processing abilities. BUT I STILL THINK THAT A MOVIE CAN'T REPLACE A BOOK!!! :-) Thus, I'm doomed for further struggle... Thank you, Robert! :-)))

cobweb said...

Hi Robert,
Not sure if you realised you wrote 'Girl with The Golden Tattoo' rather than 'The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo'! Might this merely be a typo or does it have other significance, I wonder.

Like so much out of these northern lands just wonderful.

Robert Moss said...

Cobweb - Thanks for picking up my typo, which I have now corrected in the post. Since one of my rules for navigating by synchronicity is "notice what's showing through your slip", there could be a message in this. Certainly, in more sense's than one, Larsson's heroine has proven to be "golden."

On my first walk through Asheville NC (where I've been offering a workshop and some evening talks over the past four days) I encountered a young man reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (whose US edition has a golden yellow cover) under the shamelessly phallic obelisk in Pack Square that is a memorial to Zebulon Vance, Confederate general and three-term governor of North Carolina. Given the content of the book, the juxtaposition was quite telling.

Robert Moss said...

Alla - I agree that in general movies cannot replace books. I'll make one recent exception to that statement. I read Dennis Lehane's novel "Shutter Island" after seeing the movie, and was disappointed. The novel is brilliant, but under Scorsese's direction the movie is even more so, and the script succeeds to an extraordinary degree in including every significan plot turn, dialogue exchange and descriptive detail in the novel. That won't happen with a movie based on Larsson's work; there is just to darn much information in the books.

M said...

I love this series! I left the 3rd book at the bookstore in London thinking I could save myself from schlepping it, only to discover it wasn't available here yet! Wondering if you miss writing those kinds of books (Mexico Way and beyond)?

M said...

BTW, this was in the NYTimes today:

Haha! I used to use dreaming to solve my calculus and higher math homework in college a looooong time ago.

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