Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Have people gone mad? It's gotten to the point where I think that I have been transported to another planet. Seriously, what in the hell is matter with people? Two books that I believed had serious, structural flaws have surfaced on a number of Best of 2011 lists, and I just finished the blockbuster best seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hadn't exactly been avoiding this book, but the hype turned me off (shades of Da Vinci Code), so I didn't really leap to purchase a copy. I kinda hoped my mother might read it and then lend it to me. Which didn't happen. Then I saw the movie trailer and I admittedly have a serious jones for Daniel Craig, and although I abhor screen violence toward women (I walked out on Silence of the Lambs three times), I thought, hmmm, the Craig factor might too overpowering to shun the movie. I decided to read the book so that I would have a sense of the plot in case I had to walk out at some point.

This book, despite all its hype and mega-sales is mediocre at best. At. Best.

First of all, although I write fiction, I would never presume that just because I have a proven facility with words, I could present myself as a journalist. It's a little like being a damn fine piano player and then thinking you can play the harp because they both have strings. Larsson's journalistic background undermines the first third of this book. Info dump after info dump after info dump pile on top of each other. Beyond some amusing lines every now and then, the dialogue is interchangeable. All the characters sound the same. The dialogue isn't relieved by any descriptive back story or physical tells. And, in fact, the back story in this novel is handled with a heavy-handed pen. Even worse, the main premise for the protagonist's taking off for the hinterlands of Sweden seems, well, manufactured beyond belief. If he's such a marvelous journalist, why are he and his partner (also, we're told, an amazingly competent journalist) so naive and trapped so easily. I mean, wouldn't you think after twenty years in the business they might check out the veracity of their source so that they wouldn't be the subject of a libel suit?

So, for me the book begins with an implausible premise, especially when the reader is regaled with exactly how good a journalist he is. In fact, he's portrayed as one of the one few moral voices left in financial journalism in Sweden. Except apparently he isn't. The reader is left with the impression that he's either incompetent or immoral. Anyway, it's a device to transport him to a remote location in Sweden to solve a locked room mystery, except this is its sister story, the remote island mystery. The mystery finally begins to reveal itself, which is interspersed with snippets of Salander's story. I have little to say about the mystery because if you've read as many mysteries as I have, then you most likely know the ending by Chapter Four. This book was no exception. Once I got the basic background, I had "solved" the mystery, even if I didn't know how it was done; this is why characterization in these books is key.

Which hello, just not there. Protagonist is a cliche character, the typical extremely attractive man with lots of smarts and a decent heart. His interactions with women are cliche. Even his interactions with Salander are cliche. How refreshing it would have been had these two not become lovers. She is the only character in the book who is not weighed down in cliche, and then damn it to hell, she turns cliche at the end as well.

So what do we have so far? Clumsily interjected back story, paragraph after paragraph of info dumps, pedestrian dialogue, and a majority of characterizations little more than recycled tropes. Let's list another major fail. Setting the majority of the book in a unique location begs for a tremendous sense of place, something that is a cornerstone of what I expect in most successful mysteries. Nope. We strike out on this front as well. I kept hoping that there would be a map at some point because I had such a hard time imagining where these houses were relative to the bridge. Other than being told it was cold (and this is the most glaring weakness of this book, we are told everything), I have only the sketchiest idea of what comprises this island's topography (other than one hill), it's flora (some trees and shrubs), and it's unique identity relative to this story. Other than it being an island and essentially the Vanger compound, it doesn't play into the novel at all. You might say, well, that should be enough. No. It's not. I suggest you read Martin Cruz Smith's Havana. I was sweating while I was reading that book because the descriptions of Cuba and the heat and the unrelenting humidity was such a part of the story. That book couldn't have occurred anywhere else. This book? I really didn't feel it was particularly Swedish, frankly.

Essentially, this book was a lot of soapbox wrapped up in a mystery. It was about exposing the level of violence toward women (as this is not unique to Sweden, it didn't strike me as particularly a reflection of Swedish society so much as a general issue in modern society). It was about exposing the level of support for Hitler by Swedish Nazis in World War II. It was about exposing the failures of the Swedish state to protect its wards. It was briefly about hackers and their world. It was not a successful novel. I struggled to get through the first third--questionable initial premise for the protagonist's trajectory; all this blather about the security agency that had no point--at which point the sexual abuse of Salander occurs, which is such a cheap, cheap shot for getting us into the novel, but I have to admit it worked.

And I felt that way throughout the novel. It was like the trifecta of cheap shots. Rape scene, bring out the Nazis, and how can we possibly forget the tried-and-true serial killer. Yahtzee! I know it's not fair, but I have just finished re-reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by le Carre where you have the most perfect blend of characterizations, back story, and plot. Which was a best seller in its own right. This is how far we have fallen. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is this decade's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Fads, Let Me List Them

I generally listen to the news as I grin-and-bear (more bearing than grinning) my daily commute, however, one morning I was so out of it I just left it on the rock&roll station that is my husband's choice of ear food, and I noticed something about current music. I should place this in some context. The rock&roll station he listens to has an eclectic mix of current offerings, classic rock, and some blues thrown in to show how cool they are. Although owned by a huge media conglomerate, it has wisely realized that pre-programmed shows in this market won't work, and it seems that the DJs actually have some choice in what is played. So the other day I'm listening to a Beatles song and the next song up is something "today-ish," which is a nice way of saying I don't know who in the hell is singing.

What struck me throughout my entire drive is that current music and current style of writings are dove-tailing each other. Wildly popular music (and I even include Adele in this although I do adore her voice) is essentially notenotenotenote, different two notes, notenotenotenotenote. I assume this is due to the influence of rap, but there is virtually NO melody. However, this lack of melody is always compensated for by a kick-ass percussion background. I don't know enough about rap to make any sort of intelligent statement about it other than to me, personally, it's more spoken word, with a kick-ass beat to it.

Books these days are more or less the same. Little characterization for the main protags (or in some cases NO characterization--where's the "melody"), however, we do have kick-ass world-building (essentially the percussion of the novel), and the minor characters seem more thought out than the main characters. To me a book doesn't move forward unless the main protagonist is somehow affected by what happens in the book. All the world-building in the world can't save a book for me unless the main character moves.

This is why writing a mystery series is, inherently, limiting. Because aside from solving mysteries, your main protagonist needs to move emotionally, and how many personal epiphanies can one character have? I think you can have five books of epiphanies, and after that you either stop the series or the book becomes basically a soap opera with a mystery included. The mystery in a novel fulfills the same role as world building does in the fantasy novel. It is key, but it's not *key*, if you get my drift.

Fantasy novels are easy to pick on because world building is so integral to their structure, and even as I wade through popular reviews of such books, many of their readers *only* care about the world-building, so maybe the authors are writing to their readers; I don't know. I think a lot of mystery readers really only care about plot. The classic mystery's roots are embedded in Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who never age and never change. Not that I haven't torn through the entire Christie oeuvre; I have. But in general, such one note protagonists don't work for me. A number of books I've read recently just don't *go* anywhere. Oh, physically they do, as in lots happens, and I can't say they aren't well written, because a lot of them are, but the main character stands still while everything happens around them. It's not a personal journey, which, at heart, I think every book needs to have at its core.

Or if it doesn't, then it's a comment on the character's existential crisis (and I don't usually throw those sorts of terms around because, well, how pretentious, but here I really do mean this). Two writers who pull this off are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Frankly, most of the books I've read who have a moribund protagonist are *not* using this character as emblematic of modern existential angst, they are just being lazy, but indeed the whole point of Chandler and Hammett's novels *is* the existential centerlessness of Marlowe and Spade. So, yes, it can be done and done beautifully, but it must be part of the whole concept, not because, wow, the world building/plot so shiny, ultimately so hollow.

Time to re-read The Long Goodbye.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

M is for Mystery Joins the Ranks

M is for Mystery--the independent mystery bookstore that has been a bastion for readers and writers of mysteries for over a decade--began its fire sale last week. It now joins the ranks of those small independent bookstores that have closed their doors. This time around it doesn't seem to be a financial blow to the solar plexus as a result of the e-revolution or the discount revolution. Ed Kaufman is retiring. He sent out smoke signals about six months ago that he was ready to hang it up and did anyone want to buy the store. Would that I had that chunk of change. Talk about a dream come true. Sadly, I've got one kidlet still in college and another heading out for college next year and all extra cash (and then some!) is being funneled into tuition dollars. As no one in the mystery community stepped up to the plate, finally he sold the store to someone who is going the used book, antiquarian route.

It was telling that at the joint MWA/SINC Holiday party at the store yesterday the new owner didn't even step up to the mike to say hello to the local mystery community. I knew at least half of the people in the room; most of them were local writers. That the new owner didn't even feel compelled to say hello to us said to me that we won't have a role in his vision for the new store. Well, that's his right, and I'm not trashing him for that. It's just, well, sad. And it's chilling for people like me: writers with a limited market whose limited market happens to be mystery aficionados. The elimination of yet another mystery bookstore (Kate's in Massachusetts--another venerable institution for mystery readers and writers--closed last year) is another lost opportunity for marketing in a market that is shrinking as I type.

And as much I think that the e-revolution is here to stay, I will say unequivocally that browsing the shelves of a bookstore is not the same as browsing the net. Ed was having a 50% off sale, and, um, I went a little wild. I bought a ton of books that I'd actually seen ballyhooed on amazon but wasn't wowed by, but in the store reading a page here, a page there, I was hooked. I bought eight books. Granted, they were 50% off, but even if they had been 50% off on amazon, I STILL wouldn't have bought them. They didn't jump out at me. On a bookshelf, their covers were much brighter and shinier, and I could thumb through the book at random (not read an excerpt that is chosen for me).

That is the big difference here. I like the physical feel of a book, but I also love the ease of picking up an e-reader. Both have pluses as reads. But in terms of sales, I tend to buy lots in stores and when I purchase books online for my Kobo, I buy ONE book. Because browsing the compiled lists touted by amazon or Barnes and Noble is limited. It's always the books from the big publishers that are being pushed, never the small book that could delight. Sometimes you want the blockbuster and sometimes, damn it, you want to be delighted.

Anyway, this is yet another sad footnote in how the world of reading is changing. Thank you, Ed. As a reader I appreciate the love and dedication you put into your store, and as a writer? Ditto.