Book Reviews for January: Mysteries
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
When I first started this book—this was in January, forgive me blog gods!—I wrote on Facebook that the early story was slow-going; a more accurate assessment is that I was reading slowly in the beginning. (There is a difference between the two situations.) What happens is, in the beginning of Dragon Tattoo, the main character (a male journalist, and not the girl) is convicted of slander for accusing a high-powered businessman of fraud. Or unethical business practices. Or something. And early on in the book, there’s just a whole lot of this guy, the journalist, discussing with various people the ins and outs of the case, and on the record and off the record and holding companies and it’s just all very inside. I don’t normally read stuff I need an MBA to understand.
The book takes off considerably when an actual mystery presents itself. The combination of journalistic-detective was fun because I am unusually invested in research as action. Blomqvist goes through scrapbooks and news clippings and archives and painstakingly pieces together answers to this mystery he is trying to solve, much of which ends up hinging on a 40-year-old photograph. As he very slowly makes headway, I was rapt. Unfortunately, the book lost steam again almost as soon as the motive behind the murders was unmasked and the confrontation with the murderer took place. It was a very typical, “Ha HA, you did not suspect me, did you, foolish investigator? Now I will strap you into my doomsday machine and wait to be bested by you or your spunky sidekick.”
And then so much had to be wrapped up—Blomqvist’s book. The corporation. The magazine. The money. What Lisbeth is going to do now. And AGAIN it was so much with the takeovers and the holdovers and the offshore accounts and it was done in PAINSTAKING detail. I have no doubt that there’s a market for this kind of mystery. Someone, somewhere, is writing a review all, “I LOVE the way this book tied together mystery and high finance,” and I’m glad for them. For me, it was just a real disappointment, because for awhile there in the middle, the book was amazingly suspenseful.
The characters were no real selling point for me, either. There’s nothing wrong with Blomqvist, but nothing particularly compelling about him either. Lisbeth had a lot of potential as a heroine, but I don’t think she really came together as a character. She has a lot of attitude and commits some outrageous acts, but I didn’t get any sense of her psychological underpinnings (except: she has a lot of rage).
Dragon Tattoo is the beginning of a three-part series, of course. I have not yet—even six months later—been possessed to pick up the second book. I have some interest in the movies (all three have already been produced in Sweden and an American version of the first is coming out soon). Maybe Lisbeth will make more sense to me embodied by an actual young woman.
Postscript: Credit this to Susan Orlean: “According to another friend, people who work in bookstores have a new name for Larsson’s book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. They call it The Girl Who Pays Our Salaries.”
What most baffles me about this book is that it became a bestseller in America. I am an advanced reader. I have waded through some dry, boring stuff that you can’t even imagine. I have coached myself into having a completely open mind about fiction, saying, “well, there’s got to be something of value here, I just need to find it,” and even I considered quitting a few times early on.
I cannot imagine an average reader—someone who runs through disposable mysteries at a moderate rate—actually reading this book. I can imagine them starting it, stalling out at the early financial stuff, and abandoning it. I really wish that I could see statistics which compared the number of consumers who will buy this book versus the number of consumers who will actually read it.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
This is the polar opposite of Larsson’s book, the kind of mystery they call a cozy. Cozies take place in bookstores and bakeries. They make crime—even murder—comfortable. Generally, I find these kinds of mysteries frustrating and weird. Especially because of the murderers’ tendencies to respond to being caught by saying, “Whoops, you caught me. It’s true, I did it.” Murder is a dark act! Some are passionate, some are cold and cruel. It usually represents the worst impulses of human nature. It’s not something quirky florists should be poking their noses into.
I thought I’d try this one, though. What distinguishes The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, somewhat, is that it takes place in Botswana. The setting made it all seem more plausible. Private investigator Precious Ramotswe’s town has got markets and hospitals and car repair shops—they’re not living in huts or anything—but it’s definitely a rural, less developed world, and that’s reflected in the mysteries she pursues. In fact, there are no murders in the book; she solves smaller cases, missing persons, stolen money, and a thing with a doctor whose supervisor believes he might have a drug problem or a split personality or something. The stakes are a bit lower, then, and things are a bit more relaxed than in these mysteries where serial killers are going to strike every 48 hours.
Mma Ramotswe keeps with this laid-back attitude by being an excessively low-tech investigator. She does a lot of thinking and making connections, a lot of asking people questions, and a lot of posing as someone with innocent curiosity (that’s where being a woman serves her well). She doesn’t go through any kind of licensing or instruction. I think all American private investigators have to be licensed; this belief is based on the my knowledge that in Season 3, the lead character in Veronica Mars studied and then sat for her PI exam.
HBO produced this story as a TV show a couple years back starring Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe. I don’t think it went anywhere, and ended production after one season. Still, I would be interested in seeing the show more than I would be in reading any more of the books. Some gifted actors and a TV production team can take a thin, wispish story like this and really bring some gravity to it. I’d be interested to see if they did. And I bet the locations were GORGEOUS.
One Good Turn
When Will There Be Good News?
Started Early, Took My Dog
(Jackson Brodie series, Kate Atkinson)
British author Kate Atkinson went from writing straightforward literary fiction (stories about families, about marriages, plots having to do with family secrets and suburban malaise) to writing mysteries, beginning with Case Histories in 2004. Case Histories, which is the first in a continuing series, features Jackson Brodie, a police detective turned private investigator, who constantly gets embroiled in serpentine, sometimes long-unsolved murders.
The next two Brodie books (One Good Turn and then When Will There Be Good News?) follow the Murder She Wrote formula of wrong-place-wrong-time where Brodie falls into murder investigations without needing to seek them out.
One Good Turn introduced Louise Monroe, a hard-boiled single mom who is also a police detective in Edinburgh—she plays pivotal roles in both the second and third books. I LOVED Louise. She’s super-capable as a cop and a total misanthrope in her personal life. She’s baffled and mildly grossed-out by her teenage son and his boy-ness. She and Brodie engage in a pleasantly complicated relationship that’s never quite romantic and never quite professional either.
What I really love about these is that Atkinson works so hard to invest her characters with life. She doesn’t just give her characters traits: this one’s an alcoholic, this one has a dog, this one never got over his dark past. That’s pretty common in mysteries, which are mostly about the mystery itself, about keeping the plot driving forward, whose characters are only mechanisms. For mystery authors, letting the characters sit and reflect for a minute, follow mental tangents that illustrate who they are as people, is not always a priority. For Atkinson, it is. In fact, I would characterize her books as mysteries for people who don’t generally care for mysteries.
The fourth book in the series (Started Early, Took My Dog) came out in March; I read it as soon as I could get my hands on it. So far Atkinson has not disappointed.