Monday 2 November 2009

The polemic, as detective story

If I'd met Steig Larsson, I'm pretty sure I'd have liked him. I like his values. And I absolutely agree with the thesis which I think caused him to write this book, which is that one of the most effective ways in which you can change the values of a society are through popular culture. Not through high culture, but through films people choose to watch, television programmes they stay home to follow, books they actually read.

This is a book to be read. It is, first of all, a ripping yarn. Its two protagonists are both well realised and interesting - Blomkvist, Larsson's own alter ego, is a warm, gentle, intelligent person of strong convictions and integrity. Salander - the girl with the dragon tattoo - is darker; profoundly damaged, severely autistic, desperately vulnerable, with ethics and values which don't mesh well with the society around her but which have an integrity of their own. Around them is a wider cast of characters, many of them interesting, most of them well drawn and realised.

It's a rattling good yarn. It's extremely well told - there are a series of clever misdirections early in the narrative which make you (made me) think you've seen a major clue to the mystery; in my case I was (mostly) wrong. The denoument, when it comes, is absolutely consequent on the evidence that has been presented - this is a whodunnit in that classic sense - but also profoundly surprising and shocking.

At the same time it is not great writing. The prose does not sing, it clunks. At first I thought this might be an artefact of poor translation, but Larsson himself acknowledges it, when he has Blomqvist comment on the slapdash prose of the book that, in the book, Blomqvist writes. The writing is functional; it is good enough. Fit for purpose. This is a journalist's narrative, an activist's, a polemicist's. It is not a poet's story.

Larsson's own thesis - the one he is seeking to persuade us of - is reflected in the title he chose, 'Män som hatar kvinnor' ("Men who hate women"). The book exists to persuade us that fascism and misogyny are intimately linked. It's a good argument, well made. But underneath that are other things: profound distrust of big money; anger at hypocrisy; an acute awareness of the dark things that hide behind respectable facades. The whole book is, in fact, a political tract - but you won't notice that at first read through. The story will grab you by the throat, and hurry you through the landscape Larsson paints so quickly that these details will pass unnoticed by the conscious mind, but will seep into your unconscious subliminally.

Let them seep. The world would be a better place if more people shared Larsson's values.

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