More out of duty than enjoyment, I finished up The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the final layer in the Stieg Larsson triple-decker that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. My interest had pretty much drained away midway through the middle of the sandwich, The Girl Who Played With Fire, but I kept chewing out of mild curiosity over how much more preposterous the plot could get.
A lot more, as it turned out. I’m predisposed to like any story with a crusading journalist as the hero, especially if the journo is also absolute catnip to any woman he encounters. A heroine who’s a computer hacker with a spiky Asperger personality is also pretty intriguing, which was enough to suspend my disbelief for the first book. But when the heroine can infiltrate any laptop in the western hemisphere, whip opponents three times her size, and confound a nationwide dragnet for weeks and months while tracking down a father who’s a Soviet defector and international sex trafficker, all while playing grandmaster-level chess and toying with Fermat’s last theorem in idle moments, there’s no tree in Sweden tall enough to keep my disbelief suspended. The giant blond ogre with the James Bond lineage (cross Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me with Renard from The World Is Not Enough) only added to the goofiness.
The prose in all three books grinds and clanks even more than is usual in this genre, though I don’t know if the blame goes to the late author or his translator. Only one line stands out — “fraud that was so extensive it was no longer merely criminal — it was business,” pretty good stuff — in a mass of writing that is either too expository or too rushed. Each books brings in a small army of new characters, most of them insufficiently differentiated, and by the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest I felt less like a reader than a traveler stranded in an insanely busy train station.
What’s ultimately most interesting about Larsson’s novels is that they, like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, are the most phenomenally successful books in recent memory, and yet they fly in the face of just about everything editors say they want in a manuscript. Editors complain about “too many characters,” and cry “show, don’t tell” when faced with a block of exposition. But Brown and Larsson pile on characters and exposition with great abandon, and their telling frequently outpaces their showing. But the only thing fiction editors want more than a new Dan Brown is a successor to Stieg Larsson.
Since I still have relatives in Norway, I’m giving serious thought to getting an Oslo mailing address and signing my manuscripts as Stefan Hansen. Either that or get myself a talk radio gig and start raving about Obama’s birth certificate. These are tough times, and a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do.