Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reading Stieg Larsson

I thought I should read a crime fiction novel. You know, for research.

People bring an unbelievable amount of the stuff into the New International Bookshop. Sometimes I think for every box of non-fiction donated, we get a box of crime. In particular, there seems to be a species of middle-aged communist woman who reads nothing but thrillers and whodunits. And leading Socialist Alternative member Sandra Bloodworth – who certainly reads (and writes) a lot of politics and history – watches every police show on TV.

This has always seemed strange to me. It’s not that I read exclusively heavy literature, in fact I almost never do; give me popular history and biography over theory any day. And the popularity of escapist literature (and art in general) is not only understandable, but perfectly desirable. Why shouldn’t we experience something beyond the often mundane reality of modern life, exercise our minds a little, and enjoy ourselves? I suspect we should probably draw the line somewhere before a life lived entirely online in virtual worlds, but I won’t presume to know too much about that.

Crime seems a strange choice for escapism, however. Literature offers an infinite spectrum of experience across our past, present and future – and beyond our little planet, into a universe limited only by the imagination. Why choose to escape into a world of brutal murders and the minutiae of police investigations?

So here are the prejudices, or at least preconceptions, I have to declare before recounting my first experience of reading crime fiction.

First, I have suspected crime readers (and viewers) of being more or less willing dupes of the pernicious ideology of fear, the belief that we are all powerless individuals living under constant threat from the inexplicable evil lurking in human nature. In short, I have blamed crime fiction for the fact no one lets their kids walk to school alone any more.

Second, crime fiction seems to be the sudoku of literature. The rules and individual components of the game are familiar to all, it’s simply a matter of following the premise through to its logical conclusion. Everything adds up in the end, with the principle upshot being you have successfully killed some time and the plane is beginning its descent.

This recalls the time historian Sean Scalmer tried to make me understand the appeal of rugby league as being the endlessly subtle variations within the rigid pattern of play. After taking into account personal preferences for different material, this doubtless explains how any genre can have enduring appeal – but neither crime nor rugby league, nor sudoku, is my genre of choice.

Left-wing politics is, however, so I couldn’t read the biographical stories on the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson without some interest. Nor could I avoid them, because in late 2009 The Age seemed to be running a campaign in support of the Millennium trilogy.

Larsson was a one-time Trotskyist and apparent lifelong workaholic, a graphic designer who edited a crusading anti-fascist magazine. He was also a heavy smoker, killed by a heart attack in 2004 at the age of just 50 before the three novels he had written as a hobby could see the light of the day. Posthumously he has become one of the best-selling authors in the world.

It’s an appealing back story, and when in November I found myself killing time in the Adelaide airport bookshop, I forked out $24.95 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two days later I had finished it, but thought I should take a break lest I become an instant crime addict. This January I knocked over the second and third books, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, in about a week.

They certainly make for compulsive reading and I do recommend them, even to non-crime fans – but I did expect more politics from Larsson. There is little class analysis to speak of (of course this is not a literary criticism, more a caveat for Lefties attracted by the author’s politics). The first book does dig into the dirty secrets of big business: the misogynist violence within the industrialist Vanger family is rooted in the fascist ideology which infected the Swedish ruling class in the 1930s; and the respected capitalist Wennerstrom’s empire rests on dodgy arm deals. But the profit motive is rarely the primary motive for crime, and the working class is all but invisible.

In fact it is the strident feminism of Larsson’s work which is its most striking and appealing feature. He shatters more than a few paradigms by creating pint-sized, bisexual, socially awkward hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander as the classic just avenger. She is a wonderful character who simultaneously infuriates and delights, becoming more sympathetic the more her story is revealed.

The Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in fact The Men Who Hate Women. It’s hard to imagine this title selling as well in Western countries still experiencing the backlash against feminism but, given the phenomenon the books have become, it is a shame the English language publishers baulked.

A woman busts through the glass ceiling; bigoted police and the mental health industry trample over legal rights; gay, lesbian and polygamous relationship are all sympathetically presented; the trafficking of women is deplored. A cynic could read Larsson as a predictable checklist of Left-liberal concerns, but it is this convincingly detailed background that provides the moral framework to which a reader can really latch on. The Millennium trilogy is a multi-layered quest for justice which transcends the rights and wrongs of an individual crime.

The first book is the best, not only for the shock of the new but for a narrative drive unmatched in its sequels, which occasionally suffer from the sudoku effect. The latter books are really one work divided in two – perhaps serialisation would have maintained the suspense most effectively – and the climax, however enjoyable, lacks real suspense. Undoubtedly Larsson died too soon, although his idealised self lives on in the character of Blomkvist, the investigative journalist sex-machine.

So, what of the fear factor?

Just after finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I had what I took to be a most revealing dream. It began as a classic fantasy: I was making my AFL debut (strangely, for Essendon) on the MCG. I ran out onto the ground, through the banner, warmed up and then headed to the bench as the first bounce approached. Realising I needed to go to the toilet, I informed the incredulous runner and headed back into the bowels of the stadium – whereupon I was tackled to the ground, bound and gagged, then raped and killed.

Read crime fiction at your own risk.
N.B. Just before completing this post, the Bookshop received a donation of quality history and politics, plus the obligatory crime - tucked away with which was real gem: Delightful Murder: A social history of the crime story (Pluto Press, 1984) by the late Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel. I've nabbed it for myself. There may be more forthcoming on this topic...

1 comment:

Emerson said...

Hi Seb,
Did you hear about the campaign around Eva Gabrielsson and the rights to the book? It's pretty gross what happened to her.


Oh, have you thought maybe its the fear factor that makes crime fiction addictive? Perhaps its the adrenaline rush from all those nightmares.