Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Log 211: I read an 800-page book in less than a week: a good thriller keeps you turning the page, and I did that

When I started to read an 841 page book recently I was sure it would take me no less than a month. In the event, I have finished it within less than a week, a tribute to the book’s extreme readability. The book in question is the thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson.

To my surprise the book bore a rather enigmatic notation at the beginning, that Larsson, the former editor of a magazine in Stockholm, had delivered this book and two sequels to the publisher (in April 2004), and then had died seven months later. This explanation sounded so pat and unlikely --- the author was only 50 when he died --- that I doubted whether it might not be a front of some kind to cover an alias by some well-known writer. But that, evidently is not so.

In reality, Larsson was apparently not too well off, having been only moderately successful in his working life. He had lived with a woman to whom he was not married, an architect, for more than 30 years, but had never made a will. Brought up by his grandparents, he had apparently had little to do with his parents, but on his death, the authorities found his heirs were his father and brother, not the woman who was, in everything but name, his wife.

Amazingly (to the woman who lived with him), the books immediately began to sell in huge numbers, until at last report more than 22 million copies have been sold, generating a huge fortune for his heirs. They offered Larsson’s common-law wife 20 million kronors ( some $2.8 million dollars), out of earnings of 120 million, an offer that she refused.

A veritable industry has grown up around Larsson and his works. People who worked with him in his magazine have written books saying he was too poor a writer to have written these best-sellers: one even said it was his common-law wife who was the actual writer, which she denies. She said in an interview with an English newspaper that the reason they never married was so that their address could remain in her name, since, as the editor of an anti-fascist magazine, he was always in danger of being attacked by right-wing fanatics..

So the mysteries and dramas around the dead author are almost as amazing as the conspiracy he reveals in his book, which have been denounced widely as totally improbable. On the other hand, in spite of all criticism, obviously many readers, like me, have found his work compulsively readable, although the characters do lack what one might call immediate credibility.

In particular, the title character, a be-spiked young woman of 25 who has been officially classified as a mental delinquent, is so bizarre as to be scarcely believable. Though apparently emotionless, she has remarkable powers deriving from her photographic memory, and ability to understand computers. She is an expert hacker, something the investigative journalist who is the central figure in the book uses to his advantage as he tracks down the corrupt and fraudulent behaviour of a major Swedish industrialist,

To judge by this work, underneath the calm exterior of Swedish society lurks a raging nest of pornographic, sadistic and criminal behaviour, especially among the governing industrial classes.

Since critics seem to be almost unanimous that his first book is by far the best of the three, I doubt if I will read the successors. The three books have already been made into movies in Sweden, and a version of the book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, about the sex trade in Eastern Europe, is playing in Ottawa theatres at the moment.

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