Stieg Larsson – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m not sure what makes the perfect crime novel, but gripping writing, strong characters and deeper themes must be a mix that comes close. The first in Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl’ trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have all this.

The story is sophisticated and summarising it is tricky, but the essence is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the CEO of a large Swedish family business and head of the big Vanger family, to investigate a girl who went missing over thirty years ago. Lisbeth Salander is a strong but emotionally troubled investigator and hacker who ends up helping Mikael. In the process they get close, discover a host of horrific secrets within the Vanger family’s history and then uncover headline-making criminal business dealings from a rival business leader, Wennerstrom.

It’s an excellent plot, as much international thriller as crime fiction.  And the main characters are very well drawn. Lisbeth, with her inner-determination but difficult life and social problems, is  particularly interesting. The fact that it was translated from Swedish make it all the more remarkable.

But what elevates the book, I think, is what it says about abuse, journalism and business.

The most prominent theme of the novel is the abuse of women by men in positions of power. Heads of families abusing daughters, business leaders using their money and status to exploit vulnerable girls, carers abusing those they are caring for… It makes for grim reading, but this is at the heart of the book. The book’s chapters are peppered with facts about sexual abuse in Sweden. And most interesting is Lisbeth’s attitude towards abuse: she experiences abuse from men on a number of occasions, never blames herself, and always seeks revenge.

We see, as well, as very idealised view of investigative journalism, with Blomkvist and the magazine he works for, Millennium, struggling to make ends meet but battling on and stopping at nothing to uncover the truth behind Wennerstrom’s activities.

And Larsson draws a strong contrast, which he makes explicit toward the end of the novel, between the valuable role of businesses in the ‘real’ economy that make things and create jobs, and the rent extracting role of the stockmarket, which simply enriches a few at the expense of the many.

The vitriol against those abusing their power is present throughout the book, both through the rage of the main characters but also in the narrative as a whole. Sometimes this makes the novel seem a little simplistic: investigative journalism is useful but perhaps not as saintly as Larsson depicts it, and the distinction between the stockmarket and the real economy is far from so easy to draw.

But these are small gripes. This is a top quality book that gripped me and got me thinking.

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti

Classic Ligotti, this short story is an eerie and macabre comment on contemporary society, told through a supernatural town and terrifying clowns.

The plot is relatively simple. The narrator, an academic fascinated with traditional clown festivals visits the town of Mirocaw to experience its annual festival. On arrival the place is unnatural and the festival, far from a celebration, seems to be an opportunity for the established part of the town to attack an underclass who are forced to dress up as clowns and endure jeering, abuse and violence.

Nothing in the story is clear, not the festival, not even the motives of the protagonist.
There’s a striking moment when he gets swept up by the festival’s atmosphere and pushes a clown to the ground, but his actions are ignored and he instantly feels he has violated a code he didn’t know existed. And we never find out. 

Equally there’s a moment when the protagonist is told that the clowns are chosen for the festival from across the town’s population so it could be anyone next. But this again isn’t clarified and elsewhere the clowns are described as picked from the underclass.

It ends with a mysterious and underground ritual, in which the protagonist is spared, and he drives away leaving the terrifying figures behind.

Apart from the sense of dread the story conjures up – like a cross between Stephen King and Kafka – what is striking about this story is the comment on the symbiotic relationship between a group and its other,  where one can only exist because of the suppression of the second:

Towards the end of the story the protagonist reflects in his journal on what he’s seeing, where this is made clear: 

“One thing that seems certain, however, is the division of Mirocaw into two very distinctive types of citizenry, resulting in two festivals and the appearance of similar clowns – a term now used in an extremely loose sense. But there is a connection, and I believe I have some idea of what it is. I said before that the normal residents of the town regard those from the ghetto, and especially the clown figures, with superstition. Yet it’s more than that: there is fear, perhaps hatred – the particular kind of hatred resulting from some powerful and irrational memory.”

“As I wobbled from street to street tonight, watching those oval-mouthed clowns, I could not help feeling that all the merrymaking in Mirocaw was somehow allowed by their sufferance.”

Touch – Elmore Leonard 

At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the  rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.

Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.

As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.

What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.

Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.

The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.