Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Girl With The Midas Touch

Stieg Larsson, eh? “I LOVE HIM!” “BUT I HATE HIM!” Etc, ad nauseum.
  But what do crime writers think of Stieg Larsson? I had a piece published a couple of weeks ago in the Irish Examiner, in which I asked Val McDermid, John Banville, Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville and Eoin McNamee why they believe Stieg Larsson became such a runaway phenomenon, and what they think of his work themselves. It ran a lot like this:
The Girl With the Midas Touch: The Stieg Larsson Phenomenon

Ask any tattoo artist and they’ll tell you that demand for dragons has gone through the roof. The reason, of course, is the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy of novels: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST have sold almost 30 million copies in over 40 countries.
  Larsson’s popularity is about to go truly stratospheric, however. The second movie based on the travails of investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander opens August 27th, a Hollywood adaptation of the first novel will star Daniel Craig, and there are rumours that Larsson’s former partner, Eva Gabrielsson, is currently writing a fourth novel based on an unfinished story Larsson left behind before his untimely death.
  As has been the case with best-selling crime authors Dan Brown, James Patterson and John Grisham, however, Larsson’s work has sharply divided his fellow writers. Some hail the Millennium trilogy as a new departure for the crime fiction genre, while others dismiss it as derivative, clunky and overblown.
  “I read the first volume when on holiday and found it ‘very readable’, which as well as an encomium is a sort of insult, in my lexicon,” says John Banville, who writes crime novels under the nom-de-plume Benjamin Black, the latest of which, ELEGY FOR APRIL, is published this month. “I thought it greatly over-written - it could have fitted very nicely into 175 pages or so - and simple-minded in its plotting.”
  Val McDermid, who recently won the ‘Diamond Dagger’ for lifetime achievement awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association, and whose latest offering is TRICK OF THE DARK, places the ‘Millennium’ trilogy in the wider context of best-selling novels. “What I think Larsson has done is similar to what JK Rowling did so spectacularly well,” she says, “he’s synthesised the most successful elements of other people’s writing into something that has the ability to reach a mass market. There’s nothing especially revolutionary about his work - it’s unusual to see a man writing with such strong views on misogyny, but women thriller writers have been doing that for a long time now without generating such amazement.”
  “I think the trilogy succeeds despite itself,” says Eoin McNamee, whose ORCHID BLUE will be published in November. “The work is rife with banalities and clich├ęs - the major plot lines clunk, the male protagonist is a twitching bundle of liberal political fancies, and illiberal sexual fantasies, sometimes sad and sometimes deeply uncomfortable. You find yourself stopping dead at points and wondering how an editor could have let particular sequences through.”
  Meanwhile, Stuart Neville, whose sophomore novel COLLUSION was published last month, is not impressed by Larsson’s reputation as a campaigning novelist. “I’ve seen the screen version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO,” he says, “and listened to the audio book, and I’m not a huge fan of either. In particular, I find it hard to square what I’ve seen and heard with Larsson’s rep as a liberal feminist. Lisbeth Salander seemed more like a schoolboy fantasy to me, and there were parts of the film that struck me as out-and-out misogyny.”
  Colin Bateman, himself a perennial best-seller, is less critical of the film. “I started the first book and didn’t get anywhere with it,” he says, “but I can say that about a lot of books. Then I saw the first movie and quite enjoyed it, though to tell you the truth subtitles tend to lend an intellectual quality to movies they probably don’t deserve - it could quite easily have been an extended episode of a British cop show, with added S&M.”
  So why have the novels been so phenomenally successful?
  “The books,” says McNamee, “have the quality that distinguishes great crime writing - atmosphere. It’s not so much the physical as the psychic landscapes evoked. The air of fatigued Calvinism and social progressivism gone past its usefulness. The themes of sex and family that you find in the genre from John D. McDonald to James Lee Burke. Beneath the sometimes overwrought architecture of the books, there’s a feeling of real harm abroad, of transgressive whispering in the shadows. You have the sense of an absent God, innocence abandoned, of children being sinned against in the darkness.”
  “I think he’s a terrific storyteller,” says McDermid, “and he’s created a pair of protagonists who really have the power to make us care what happens to them. I like his ideas, and I wish he’d lived to explore further the issues he was clearly so passionate about. I also wish he had lived long enough to work with an editor to make the books sharper and less baggy. What I think is excellent news for crime writers is that it has woken up a wider audience to the power of the contemporary genre.”
  “I think it’s based on a reversal of genders,” says Banville, “the hero is a feminine type but acceptable to men, and the heroine is far more ferocious than any man, but justifiably so. Also, she is the irresistible nemesis that we all secretly long to be. And, of course, the back-story is one of horrifying and almost unimaginable violence, which is something we glory in. Future generations may dub ours the Age of the Wests, Fred & Rose, and wonder at our taste for vicarious blood-letting.”
  McNamee also identifies Lisbeth Salander as the crucial element in Larsson’s success. “You can almost hear the gear change in the first book as Larsson realises that she’s much more interesting than the male protagonist,” he says. “The character manages to rise above the hovering banalities of the spiked and tattooed punkette, and raise a skinny fist against an indifferent universe. She’s not Marlow or Lew Archer but she has the gravitas of those solitary, compromised figures, moving easily from the bed-sit world of misfit computer hackers to the shadowed big houses of the well-got. That’s the genius of the trilogy - it’s all very modern, very Calvinist, very noir.”
  Bateman, whose latest ‘Mystery Man’ novel DR YES is published later this month, has a typically idiosyncratic take on the Larsson phenomenon. “With all their ‘Blumquists’ and ‘Rhomohedrons’, the novels aren’t always an easy read,” he says, “so I suspect they are THE BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME of crime novels, purchased but not always read. Whereas I’m just not purchased.”
  This feature first appeared in the Irish Examiner.


Paul D. Brazill said...

'so I suspect they are THE BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME of crime novels, purchased but not always read.'Sounds about right to me. The schoolboy fantasy aspect sounds right up my street, though.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Excellent insight by the writers and it's inline with other views I have read. I don't have a desire to read them, but like everywhere else, it is all the rage, especially among females, my better half included. She did say the second one is much better than the first, but I also sense her enthusiasm is staring to wane on the third one.

Frank said...

ad nauseAm... (I did Latin for Leaving cert)... I think one of the things that makes the novels enjoyable outside of Sweden is the poetry of the character and place names. And Salander is a tremendous character - she is what holds it all together.

Declan Burke said...

Paul - What I'm wondering is, how many people have bought a Stieg Larsson as their first ever crime novel, and been disappointed / delighted as a result?

Sean - Most of the people who've raved about the books to me have been blokes, but I'm hearing that the books have a much stronger appeal to a female audience. Unsurprising, maybe, given what Lisbeth Salander gets up to.

Frank - I generally hate pedants, but I'll make an exception for a Latin pedant ... Mea culpa, etc.

Cheers, Dec

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Interesting. I don't a know male who has read it, or at least admitted to it. But then again, most gents I know like the real literary stuff, like Penthouse forums ;)

Linkmeister said...

I've read all three and enjoyed them, not for any particular mystery they have in them or for their treatment of crime. I think McNamee has it about right: they've got atmosphere. Both the physical geography kind (I'd bet most Americans who are buying them like hotcakes have never been to Sweden) and the interior kind. They put you inside the characters' heads pretty well, particularly in Salander's in Book Two and in the Secret Police wallahs in Book Three.