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Posts Tagged ‘Stieg Larsson’

Alan Banks and Annie Cabot are considering their situation in the final pages of Peter Robinson‘s latest novel, ‘Bad boy‘ (Hodder, 2010).  It’s after the storm but there’s plenty still hanging for the next book to pick up, something Robinson doesn’t usually do; for sure there’s always been continuity from book to book, but here there are various narrative strands left positively dangling.  Like Banks saying:

“But sometimes I think I’ve had enough.  I’m getting a bit tired of it all, to be honest.”

Beyond the music, the booze and the books mentioned in passing, how much is Banks Robinson’s alter ego?  And how much is Banks hitting the television screens effecting some sort of change in their relationship?  After the emotional intensity of the title short story of the last book, ‘The price of love‘, which took us right back to Banks’ decision to leave London, the tone of ‘Bad boy‘ seems strangely detached for a lot of the time, even though the action does involve Banks’ daughter as a hostage (something bad happening to them seems to be an occupational hazard of the daughters of fictional British detectives).

Banks doesn’t appear until page 67; he’s on leave in the US after the traumas of the last full size novel and another failed relationship, seeking some sort of epiphany, achieving a muted satisfaction, an “end of something”.  Thankfully we are spared a U2 soundtrack in the Nevada desert.  In San Francisco he’s reading Dashiel Hammett – ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – and again contemplating notions of happiness, achieving a few moments even.

It’s not until page 189, nearly halfway through the book, that our man lands back in Blighty with all hell breaking loose.  There are references to the happenings back in ‘Aftermath‘ – the book chosen for the (sorry – not very good) first TV adaptation –  and parallel concerns with the formal investigation of  an officer’s behaviour under duress (this time involving a topical taser).  What further makes me think that Robinson has been affected by his new TV status is surely the most animated cinematic passage I can recall him writing – the journey down the M1 with Banks at the wheel, Jaff – the bad boy – in control, hand on gun, and Tracy Banks the hostage, with Banks’s favourite CD , Mile Davis – ‘Kind of blue’ playing on the car stereo; that will work.

Robinson has written better books than ‘Bad boy‘ but it still has its moments and I’ll read the next one, no trouble.   We end up in organised crime territory (‘The Farmer’ with his damned compilation CDs of classical music); Jaff as public school and Cambridge educated villain in the ‘new’ Leeds doesn’t quite make it for me (what did he study?) and the level of gratuitous nastiness in London really is, well, nasty.  But we still have Banks:

“She sounded far too wise for one so young, thought Banks., who had been patiently waiting for years now for the wisdom that was supposed to come with age, to no avail, it seemed.”

One last point, a complaint.  In his acknowledgments at the back, Peter Robinson thanks,

“Last but not least, this book wouldn’t be in your hands today if it weren’t for the sales reps and the bookshop employees, so a hearty thanks to you all.”

The copy I read, and I daresay thousnds of others will do the same, came from the public library; my copy will be read at the very least a dozen times before the paperback comes out.  Credit where it’s due here too, please, to some public sector workers in libraries up and down the land who are not exactly having a great time of it in these days.

There’s a significant new woman, another strong female character among the many (hurrah!), in ‘The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest‘ (MacLehose, 2009), the final book in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy. “Do you have any weaknesses?” asks Blomkvist.  “I don’t read fiction,” the muscled Figuerola replies.  She works out, used to do weights.  I can’t remember, I think she’s legit state security rather than police; I just thought, with a little weariness, ‘Oh bloody hell, go on surprise me, he’s not going to sleep with her too, is he?  He does.

Don’t get me wrong, the whole trilogy is still a brilliant quick read – inventive, intoxicating even; I’ve talked about the previous books, um, previously.  Another quote:

“It all sounds a bit … I don’t know. Improbable.”
“Doesn’t it? One might think it’s the stuff of a spy novel.”

Indeed.  But with this secret state within a secret state – ‘The Section’ – headed up by an old man dying of cancer and another on a kidney dialysis machine, it doesn’t do to linger too long in the real world.

This book picks up with Salander in a coma, so it’s only on half-life until she starts functioning and engaging with the world and the hacker community again. Emails and instant messaging make for excellent action drivers, and with cops following spies, private security following the Section and other combinations thereof, we romp along.  The courtroom scenes are nicely done, too, even though we seem to have a very different legal system here in the UK.  It does have to be said that there’s too much detail at times – do we really need the full security audit of Berger’s apartment, say – and there must be an appropriate and poetic punishment out there for whichever deeply annoying editor decided to fully punctuate acronyms like C.D. & D.V.D. let alone H.T.M.L. and U.R.L.

Salander still enchants, though, refusing to go with the flow.  When she refuses to touch a penny of her father’s estate, she is advised, “Then give the money to Greenpeace or something.”  Her response?  “I don’t give a shit about whales.”  I guess we will never learn what happened to her twin sister or how Berger (and indeed Blomkvist) copes with Blomkvist’s new love.  But a satisfying retribution is dealt to the bad guys, and there is a riveting end to the action (almost literally).

You can’t really call Sean Lock one of the bad boys, unless you find offensive the notion of his keeping an angry group of coeliac disease sufferers at bay – complaining the tastelessness of one of his rants on people who make a big deal of mild wheat intolerance – by scattering bread crumbs.  At the theatre last week he was very funny, riffing on a number of themes.  Like phrases that sound a lot better than the reality (and thinking ethnic cleansing meant dry cleaning ponchos); like resenting being asked if wanted a ‘Bag for life’ at the supermarket checkout – because he didn’t wish to be reminded of his mortality.  My favourite: his wife doesn’t like it when he treats his kids as if they were hecklers.

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There’s a real surprise – well quite a few, actually – when we learn what Lisbeth Salandar has been up to since the events of the first book in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy, which gave her the financial resources to do pretty much whatever she wanted, in the opening pages the second in the series, ‘The girl who played with fire‘ (2009).  It’s off the wall twists like this – she’s had breast implants; I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, given half the world has already read it – that make this such an intriguing series, and there are plenty of twists at play when the action gets going, and it really does.  (Not that it wasn’t interesting before that anyway).  You thought ‘The girl with the dragon tattoo’ was exciting? – then take a deep breath and plunge in, but be prepared to suffer.

Apart from the obvious – great characters, fiendish narrative skill, neat dialogue, a sense of place – I’ve been trying to work out quite why this sequence of books has been so spectacularly successful, just on a word of mouth basis.  It would be churlish of me to complain in Harry Hill mode – what are the chances of that happening? – about  seemingly random meetings and sightings in bars and coffee bars and to query the survival prospects of certain characters here or the solving of Fermat’s last theorem in a moment of respite from prolonged duress, because life is too short and what we have here is a classic example of a book that deserves suspension of such disbelief.

Why does it grip so?  I think it’s a couple of generations’ equivalent of James Bond, over and above the obvious techno stuff (“It was an antique P.C. With Windows 95 and a 280 MB hard drive. It took an eternity to open the Excel document …”) and the interesting and varied sex lives (though never prurient) of the main protagonists.  Here is board member Harriet Vanger’s – you remember, from the first book, found in Australia – take on the magazine:

The problems you face in Millennium are small and manageable. Naturally the company wants to operate at a profit – that’s a given. But you all have another goal – you want to achieve something. […] Exactly what that is remains a bit unclear to me. The objective is quite hazy. You aren’t a political party or a special interest group. You have no loyalties to consider except your own. But you pinpoint flaws in society and you don’t mind entering into battles with public figures. Often you want to change things and make a real difference. You all pretend to be cynics and nihilists, but it’s your own morality that steers the magazine, and several times I’ve noticed that it’s quite a special sort of morality. I don’t know what to call it , except to say that Millennium has a soul.

I think we baby boomers can pretty much identify with that.  And then there’s the question of loose cannon and – lest we forget, victim – Lisbeth Salandar’s morality, as described by Palmgren, her old mentor:

He gave up. She was up to some mischief that she did not want to talk about. He was quite sure he would have severe reservations, but he trusted her enough still to know that whatever she was up to might be dubious in the eyes of the law, but not a crime against God’s laws. Unlike most people who knew her , Palmgren was sure that Salander was a genuinely moral person. The problem was that her notion of morality did not always coincide with that of the justice system.

How we relish her revenges.  And we’d all like to think we share another of her qualities:

For some reason it did not seem at all odd that he was a good friend of Salandar’s.  He was a cocky devil. Lisbeth liked cocky devils, just as she detested pompous jerks. There was only a subtle difference, but Paolo Roberto belonged to the former category.

In passing, there’s also a decent bit of police procedural in evidence here, along with the serious consideration of social issues like the human rights of victims.  And still lots of questions left hanging for the final volume.  Did I say how entertaining it was?  Great stuff.

On a completely different tack, had an interesting hour on Monday evening being walked and talked around MK’s Central Library – in the company of 60 or so others, I hasten to add –  by the artists Boyd & Evans, the husband and wife who live locally and were responsible for the much-loved mural that has graced the library since the mid-80s:

Fiction, non-fiction, reference

Fiction, non-fiction, reference

They weren’t actually addressing that picture but rather 7 others of their works that have recently been hung in the library (to create a bit of space in their studio, they said).  It was a fascinating experience; you could see so much more after they’d described the genesis of the pictures – there is, for example, among other things, a space shuttle landing top left in the large pencil drawing, hanging upstairs above the L&M shelves in the fiction, called something like ‘The shooting of the pope’ which I’d looked at many times before and not ‘got’ – it’s a signs of the worrying times piece with more than one smoking gun.  Never mind where the images came from – frozen low definition video newsreel images.  And so on.  They described their – vogue phrase – ‘artistic practise’ in some detail (surrealists, working from photos) and launched a staunch defence of the Milton Keynes Gallery, currently the focus of readers’ letters in the local press from ‘disgusted of Milton Keynes’ who want more representational work on the walls.

The problem with MK Gallery is that, a lot of the time, there’s too much ‘artistic practise’ in evidence but not a lot of substance actually on display.  As it happens a new show opened this week, one of the more interesting ones, though I’m not sure the sculptures and ceramics will pass my wife’s test of whether, in her opinion, a class of primary school children could have done better.  Although a fair bit of it passed me by, I shall be visiting this Andrew Lord retrospective again.  I particularly liked the ceramic ‘Arch spanning river’ which had a certain evocative something, albeit with only a thin strip of river under the arch.  I liked the colourful ‘Portrait vases’, sitting on specific shining books (not that you can tell what they are, save from the titles of the pieces – or indeed, see any faces).  I like the way he deploys blobs of gold leaf on these and the lovely pale blue of the ‘Eighteen Mexican Pieces’ (or wonky pots, you could say).  The arch piece mentioned earlier is a prime example of what the handout calls the ‘use of memory as a sculptural tool‘.  Words fail, really, but as I say, I shall go again and hope, next time around, it’s the right time for the video of the Britannia Coconutters dancing through Bacup last Easter, the inspiration for another piece in the show.

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I can now reply in the affirmative to enquiries as to whether I’ve read ‘The girl with the dragon tattoo‘ (2005, English edition 2008).  It does keep cropping up.  And yes, the first book in Stieg Larsson‘s ‘Millennium‘ trilogy really does pick up the more you get into it and is indeed a roller coaster ride of a crime thriller of great ingenuity with its heart in the right place. The cynic in me  was in overdrive from the corny Prologue – a framed pressed flower arriving every year on the anniversary of an unsolved mystery – and there must be a large element of fantasy identification a la James Bond in journalist Mikael Blomkvist, not to mention what could be argued is the over the top cut-and-paste  creation of Lisbeth Salander, the computer wiz social misfit of the book’s title; you could also add gruesome serial killing to the mechanical writing agenda too, later on.  Suspension of such cynicism has to be the name of the game though, as the stories kick in and you are engaged on so many levels, not least being the critique of financial capitalism crucial to the main sub-plot.  Lisbeth is simply one of the great literary creations of the age – edgy, fascinating, full of surprises; one fears many lesser clones will follow in her wake.  The book is a great read, simple as that.

Still on crime fiction, I’ve just read John Harvey‘s new collection of short stories, ‘A darker shade of blue‘ (Heinemann, 2010) which includes stories involving Charlie Resnick (hurray!) and other cops who have appeared in Harvey’s subsequent novels, and introducing Jack Kiley, an ex-footballer ex-Met North London-based private eye, who could get interesting – there’s not many writers come this close to putting Chandler and Hammett in a British context.  Some of the stories were in last year’s Nottingham published slim volume ‘Minor key‘ but it was no bother to meet them again, in particular the stories set in Soho of the late 1950s and early ’60s.  In his preface Harvey mentions the possibility of a novel addressing that scene; on this evidence, yes please.  The music here is pretty much jazz all the way, a refreshing change from Rankin and Robinson.  I have to say I’m coming round to the idea that as a writer Harvey is top of this particular pile, particularly when he doesn’t wear his liberal Guardian sensitivities actually on his sleeve, and that he’s also a poet counts here.  Great dialogue too, driving the narrative.  The title of the book is significant.  The contemporary stories here are dark, dealing with lives gone badly wrong – a soldier back from Iraq at the end of his tether, sink estates, immigrant workers – all the stuff of sad pathetic tales fresh from the newspapers, without much pathos.

Music:  There’s a dynamite black and white tv clip of a leather waistcoat clad Thomas John Woodward singing a knock out version of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I say’ in the days when he’d just stopped being Tommy Scott fronting Tommy Scott and the Senators but still with them backing him; it’s a song that was in the repertoire of a lot of beat groups back then and one you wish they wouldn’t bother with – the original was so good – but here was a powerful vocalist who did it justice in body and soul.  So I’ve always seen the subsequent career of Tom Jones as a bit of a disappointment, though it’s hard to imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t been hi-jacked into show business – a Joe Cocker trajectory (songwise at least) maybe?  Because the voice – a proper, open chested singing voice, shades of the gospel grounded black American soul voice  – has always been there.   And so it came to pass that I did buy a Tom Jones album, because just hearing a smattering of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burning hell’ from his pared down ‘Praise & blame‘ album sent shivers down my backbone.  And I have not been disappointed.  Less is more and I guess in many ways this roots – his musical roots – testament of a collection could not have happened without all the show biz rest.  This music moves … body too.

I’ve also been spending time with Anais Mitchell‘s folk-jazz opera Depression era setting of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth, ‘Hadestown‘.  Scored by Michael Chorney, and with a different voice for each character, it works  beautifully.  Some of the haunting songs have a real  aria-like quality and the ominous chant of the chorus in  ‘Why we build the wall’ is a dramatic triumph, exhilarating and chilling.  Pink Floyd eat your heart out.  And a useful blast from the past: early rising and tiredness tempered for me by Alan Stivell‘s ‘Renaissance de la harpe celtique‘ downstairs with  headphones.  The plaintive harp, the lyrical strings coming in and disappearing, the lovingly spare percussive episodes, they don’t get me back to sleep but I emerge refreshed, a meditative state achieved, you might say.  Always a smile when at a certain stage the strains of ‘Whiskey in the jar’ beak through.

What else?  How much longer will we continue to watch ‘Hollyoaks‘ now that Kris Fisher, the Belfast born twenty something bisexual cross dresser has left for London?  Gerard McCarthy’s performance as one of the great comic soap characters of all time will be sorely missed as the new producer brings in an ex-professional footballer’s family (boring!) as part of a new broom on the show, the only soap we’ve consistently watched for a decade.  Why couldn’t he get rid of Myra?  Kris’s upfront personality, at turns selfish and full of compassion, shone on may levels, comic, charismatic and deadly serious; there’s an extensive Wikipedia entry will give you some idea.   I laughed out loud more at the first episode of Channel4’s ‘Pete versus Life‘ than at anything like for a long time.  Rafe Spall is nicely downbeat as Pete but the counterpoint of the two sports commentators addressing Pete’s dodgy decisions, dilemmas and performance adds another dimension; their interplay among themselves a neat sub-plot in itself. (Added later that night: shame the second one came nowhere near).

Footie season again.  The news that Cesc Fabregas is staying at Arsenal gives us something to hope for, while Theo’s performance against Hungary warmed the cockles too; this could be the season.  Bad news is those bastards at Sky taking Sky Sports News off Freeview and drawing it back into the Murdoch empire, where I just will not go.  Ever since he took over the Sun newspaper British society has generally been going downhill; and they still have a page three nude.  Shame.  Missing ‘Soccer Saturday‘ will be a wrench though the great Jeff Stelling continues to shine on Countdown.  While I’m at it, never seem to miss a ‘University Challenge‘ these days; come on you red bricks!  On the wildlife front, a little egret on the Ouse and in the back garden a young thrush smashing snails’ shells on the step up to the lawn.

And another good man gone. Much saddened at the death of Jimmy Reid, who meant a lot to me.    I’ve added some thoughts on Jimmy in the Glimpses part of  Lillabullero.  The older you get the more personal the Obituary columns become, eh?

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