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Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt

Killer's Art

Killers’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2013) translation by Tiina Nunnally, shows the very real problems of publishing books out of sequence. This is the second book published in English for the American market after The Dead of Summer, yet they are respectively the fourth and fifth books in the series. For the record, this translation was published in the UK in 2010. So for those of you in the US, this is your first chance to read what happened to persuade Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas to promote Karin Jacobsson as his deputy, and about the tragedy that drove Johan and Emma apart despite the fact they have a child together. Frankly I find this publication schedule incomprehensible. When the story of the police and journalist teams develops from book to book, why must American readers be invited to read it backwards? Perhaps if these books were predominantly standalone police procedurals, it would not matter very much. But these books have a more even balance between the story arcs of the series characters and the individual mysteries. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no justification for starting at book five and then publishing book four, when it would have been just as easy to commission the translation of book one and publish them in order in all markets so we could watch the background story play out. Or is the publisher making some kind of value judgement that, somehow, the readers in the American market are not yet ready to read the earlier books. Perhaps we should draw a parallel with the recent appearance of The Bat by Jo Nesbø. This is the first book featuring Harry Hole, written in 1997 but only now released in English. I note the parallelism that the first Hole book published was also the fifth, but we then dropped back to the third and were able to read the rest in sequence (we’re still missing the second but it’s due this year). When a story is written to be read in a particular order, why must the publisher frustrate the author’s intention and deny the readers the opportunity to watch the characters’ development in sequence?

Mari Jungstedt

Mari Jungstedt

 

Ah, well, rant over. We should just be grateful we have another book by this talented author. So here we are back on the island of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island and a signifiant province. Local residents of Visby, the main town, are shocked when Egon Wallin is found hanging from one of the gates in the wall — this is the best preserved mediaeval town in Scandinavia with a two mile section of wall ringing part of the town centre. Wallin ran a successful art gallery and died on the evening of hosting an event to launch a new artist in Sweden. From the outset it’s clear this was a murder but establishing the motive is complicated as it almost immediately appears he had made arrangements to leave his wife and join a gallery in Stockholm run by a partnership. Given the physical strength required to commit the murder and hang the body from the gate, the wife and her lover are ruled out. They would just have been glad to see him go. Indeed, there are no clues as to who would have wanted him dead until a famous painting, “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel, is stolen in Stockholm. Again this appears a motiveless crime. The painting is so well known, it could never be sold on the open market and it seems not to be a theft for hire because the thief leaves behind a statue stolen from Wallin’s gallery the day he was killed. Why someone would kill a gallery owner in Visby and then steal a painting is a complete mystery (which is, of course, why we read these books).

 

The answers to the mystery of the murder and then theft are very satisfying. Even the red herring that appears quite early on is neatly tied in to the overall whodunnit package (albeit that the coincidence is only just acceptable because the number of people in the art world with the contacts to achieve particular ends would be limited). So as a police procedural, it works beautifully with the understandable despondency of the investigation team captured in the central section of the book as their leads all come to nothing. If there is a fault with the book, it lies in the time given to Anders Knutas, the lead detective. Whereas we are allowed to see into the lives of Johan Berg and his partner Emma, we see very little of the relationship between Knutas and his wife Lina. With the policeman so obsessed when a big case comes in, it strains the relationship not only with his wife, but also the rest of the family. Since the intention is to suggest sexual tension between Knutas and Karin Jacobsson, it’s not fair on the reader to skimp on the detail of the marriage. In a perfect world, a happily married Knutas would not be tempted, so failing to show how the time passes with Lina at weekends is lazy writing. With this one caveat, Killers’s Art is a genuinely impressive book with a realistic investigation into a pleasingly complicated case. I should warn readers that there are homosexual themes so, if this disturbs you, this may be a book to pass over. Hopefully, in these enlightened times, everyone will put prejudices to one side and read it. It’s one of the best Scandinavian police procedurals of the year so far published in the American market.

 

For a review of the sequel to this book, see The Dead of Summer.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson

September 2, 2012 2 comments

Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson (Stockholm Text, 2012, translated by Enar Henning Koch). Without any preamble, I need to tell you a simple truth. Although the plot goes a little off track as we get closer to the end, this is a very good police procedural or murder mystery with a tendency towards a thriller. But I have a beef with the publisher. This was first published as Drömmen Förde dig Vilse or The Dream Led You Astray, published in 2010. As with the ten previous books in the series, this features Inspector Maria Wern who helps keep the peace in Visby, yet this is the first in the Maria Wern series to be translated into English. Eight of the books have been filmed as a very popular TV series in Sweden starring Eva Röse. Anna Jansson herself is something of a phenomenon. Not only does she also write children’s books, but she continues to work part-time in the medical profession. I therefore find it incomprehensible that Stockholm Text should start the introduction of her work to the English world by translating the eleventh book. When so much of the interest and enjoyment so obviously comes from knowing who everyone is and how they have come to this point in their relationships, why have we been denied the chance to slowly accumulate this backstory by reading from the beginning? It seems perverse.

So what do we actually have? In the opening passages, Maria Wern is walking home at night when she see three men beating a boy. When she intervenes, she’s not only beaten herself, but also injected with what may be tainted blood. Sadly, the boy dies in hospital and she has to live with the possibility she will develop HIV. After such a dramatic opening, things calm down and we meet some fascinating characters, the most interesting being a wonderfully obsessed hypochondriac. He’s made himself into something of an expert on all the diseases it might be possible to catch in Sweden or from “foreigners” visiting Sweden, and routinely meets with local doctors to exchange pointers on the delicate art of diagnosis, testing and treatment. He’s a regular with Dr Anders who was treating the boy who died and is also interested in the case of Linn Bogren, a nurse with worries on her mind.

Anna Jansson holding everyone’s attention

As the book develops, both Linn Bogren and the hypochondriac are murdered. Not surprisingly, when three patients with the same doctor die, this makes the doctor the focus of attention. By coincidence, he’s in the early stages of courting Erika Lund who works with Maria Wern. As a kind of introduction to his psychological make-up, the doctor has given Erika a book which features different versions of a myth about the coast of Gotland. In essence, a mermaid or siren lures any swimmers to their doom with the undertow near Hogklint. It seems his first wife, Isabel, died there on their wedding night.

You will understand this a very good set-up with the hypochondriac the major scene-stealer until his untimely death. What makes it all particularly pleasing is the quality of the translation. There’s a depth to the use of English that vividly captures the characters and, with some authorial humour on display, makes them come alive. In part, this explains my frustration with Stockholm Text. I would like to know more about all the series characters, but currently have no way of accessing the back catalogue in English. I would have diligently worked my way through this series, but now merely have the off-chance of picking up odd titles, potentially at random, as and when new translations appear. This is not playing fair with the readership.

As we move closer to the ending, the plot grows somewhat less credible. In the real world, those who work for the police contrive to be more professional, even if only in self-defence. So to allow things to reach this state is disappointing. That said, there’s still some excitement in the somewhat tragic ending and, on balance, it’s a good way of bringing some closure in the lives of those who inhabit this fictional version of Visby. This confirms Killer’s Island as impressively unsentimental. It does not flinch from showing the uncaring, if not cruel, side of human nature. Uppermost, we see the conflict between the duties and loyalties we have as part of our jobs and the human need for love and affection. We watch as those who have suffered and are afflicted by guilt, try to reach out to each other in hope of a better future, but fall short. In short, the people we see in these pages are the same people we meet in the real world and who so often mess up their own lives in the same way we see here. It’s an impressive piece of writing wrapped around a good mystery for the police to unravel and well worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg

Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg (Stockholm Text, 2012, translated into English by Neil Betteridge) is a very interesting book to read in structural terms. When I was younger, books were significantly shorter. Regardless of genre, we were given the edited highlights of the story. In strictly literary works, this would match the modern standards of character development, but delivering rather less plot. In the genres, the narratives were more pithy, distilling plots down to their bare essentials. This meant most of my early reading experiences were based on more efficient storytelling styles. When we moved gently into the eighties and beyond, the one or two doorstop books multiplied until, today, the average length of published books is significantly and consistently longer. This is not inherently a bad thing. There were many times when reading books fifty and more years old that I would shake my head, wondering exactly what had happened as explanations were cut short to conform to the publisher’s page limits, i.e. six gathers of thirty-two pages. Today authors have the chance to capture every loose end and weave it into a completely self-contained story. If the story is left open-ended, publishers today happily buy trilogies. Yet this new found freedom incentivised by publishers who feel that longer is better, is a double-edged sword. Just because you have space given to you does not mean you can fill it constructively. Not every plot benefits from being padded out to make the wordage. Some ideas are essentially simple and benefit from being told shortly. So this presents a challenge to authors. To get published, they have to produce length. To be able to write well at length demands a higher level of craft to construct a plot and people it with rounded characters so that we can read twelve gathers and feel there was something of interest and substance from start to finish.

This is another book featuring Detective Inspector Claes Claesson and Veronika Lundborg. During the first quarter of the book, we watch him take his first daughter shopping and then go through the experience of rushing Veronika to hospital to deliver the second. In other words, this is not the usual police procedural in which there’s an early murder to pitch our heroic detective into the fray of investigation. Although there’s a murder in the first chapter, it takes place in Istanbul and news does not reach the small Swedish town of Oskarshamn until after the second daughter is settling in to her new home. This leaves the rest of the opening section for catching up with the existing cast of series characters and meeting the first of the guest characters for this episode in the continuing story.

The reason for the technical interest in the book is the dedication with which the author invests each character with a backstory. More importantly, she fleshes out the bones of the criminal investigation with the humdrum routines of everyday living. Perhaps surprisingly, the victim gets a significant interior monologue so we see something of why he and his wife were visiting Turkey and how he thinks about her now she’s returned to Sweden. Even Ilyas Bank, the Turk who operates the tea concession on the ferry where the murder occurs, gets a significant moment in the sun. This makes the book what you might call a rich tapestry. Many authors introduce named bodies as plot devices to advance the story. Here we’re offered the chance to get to know each of the characters as individuals. This requires more effort from the reader. Instead of just having to remember the names and general relationship between the characters, we’ve got a lot more material we could carry with us through the story.

So when the news of the carpet dealer’s death reaches Sweden via Interpol, Claes Claesson is suddenly in the frame to liaise with the Turkish authorities despite being entitled to paternity leave. To his surprise if not annoyance, Veronika Lundborg is not against the idea of him going, particularly when it appears the victim is the man who’s supposed to be repairing their rug. This brings our hero and Mustafa Ozen, a young man whose family came to Sweden when he was six, off to meet the victim’s family in Sweden, and then on to the plane for their first meeting with Fuat Karoglu and the investigator in charge Merve Turpan. This gives us a twin track narrative as events move forward in Sweden while the combined investigative resources of Sweden and Turkey make a little headway in Istanbul. But it’s when Claes Claesson returns to Sweden that events begin to move more swiftly. Ironically, a key fact is unwittingly brought to his door by a young couple. They are unintentionally returning the rug left with the carpet dealer for repair. This poses the question of how they got it and why they are searching the town for other rugs. Indeed, there are rug stories cropping up all round town and one possibly associated assault and later disappearance.

The factor that elevates this novel into a higher rank is the tone. In every society, people are unfaithful to each other, betray confidences, steal and physically attack each other, sometimes with fatal results. There’s nothing unusual in this catalogue of human weaknesses and sins. But Karin Wahlberg explores all this with a clear eye. Although not judgmental, she’s equally not shy in exposing the full extent of “wrongdoing” in the broadest sense of the word. Yet the story itself is anchored by Claes Claesson and his relationship with Veronika. It’s not perfect. This is as we should expect from our experience of the real world. It’s very unusual to find any relationship that’s free of tensions when two essentially selfish individuals decide to sacrifice some of their independence to form a partnership. This gives the book a central credibility. It feels like a relationship that would survive in the real world.

Put all this together and you have a pleasing story about people, some of whom commit crimes. I put it this way round because although ostensibly a police procedural about investigating a murder, it’s actually a book in which we’re invited to care about the people, understand them, and have some sympathy for those who survive. I should also alert potential readers that this is not a classic mystery, solved by the experienced police inspector. Not all the “crimes” are solved. The solution to the murder itself emerges as the different characters slowly react to the events around them and exchange information. While it may lack the elliptical efficiency of the books I used to read more than fifty years ago, it gains by allowing a proper place for all the characters. Even a humble seller of tea may manage a faint smile as justice, while not exactly blind, does not see quite enough evidence to act.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

July 8, 2012 1 comment

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen translated by Paul Norlén 
(Stockholm Text, 2012) Hammarby Police #1 is set in Stockholm. There are five books in the series with a sixth on the way but, so far, only this first title has been released in translation.

I wonder why it is that some children seem naturally vicious while others are typecast as victims. The pattern of bullying has been with us over the generations. Perhaps it’s hard-wired into us by our genes as part of the process of natural selection, the very idea of which seems to get the Christians so worked up. Instead of being racially programmed to turn the other cheek, we’re natural predators and not afraid to establish a pecking order from the youngest years. This is all very well for those who come out as the top survivors, but physically and psychologically destructive for those on the receiving end of dominant behaviour. Indeed, the theme of The Gingerbread House draws on early childhood experiences that left one boy so damaged, he grew into the most self-effacing man it’s possible to be. He occupies the lowest rung on the office ladder, delivering mail to departments around the building. For the most part, he’s invisible and unappreciated. When people do notice him, it’s to make fun of him — some never lose their cruel streaks when confronted by a natural victim. One day as he’s returning home from work, he sees Hans, one of those who tormented him as a child. Having spent most of his forty years never allowing himself an original thought, he’s tempted to follow.

Interwoven into the narrative is a first-person account of the murderer’s feelings. The first man to die is Hans. He’s lured to the home of the woman teacher responsible for the class they all shared as six-year olds. The killer explains how much anger is buried inside. This confession is positively energising and prompts speculation on what happened to the other children who made those early years so special. Hans had become a successful estate agent, selling properties and earning enough to keep his wife and children in comfortable surrounding. The second victim has had less success, becoming a cheap prostitute working from a small apartment in a rundown area. With her, the killer is able to work slowly, reminding her how she and the others had ruined the childhood years with their persistent bullying. Such are the ways of the serial killer. Once they get a taste for death, they are hard to stop. Yet the sad fact is that a broken childhood can never be repaired. The only thing left is revenge.

Carin Gerhardsen — top of the Swedish bestseller list

On the side of justice, we find Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg who’s in charge of the Violent Crimes Unit in Hammarby. He’s married with five children — the couple adopted twins from a victim of crime who died shortly after giving birth. There’s a nice moment of family life as they cook a meal and eat with the children followed by Conny and Asa considering an interesting question of ethics. How ethical is it to be indifferent to the fate of others? By implication this sets Conny thinking and, in due course, it will become relevant. The teacher in the relevant school was aware of the bullying but did nothing to stop it. Also in the team is Chief Inspector Jens Sanden, Police Assistant Einar Ericksson and Police Assistant Jamal Hamad whose family came to Sweden from Lebanon when he was young. He’s now completely integrated but not without some problems including the divorce of his Swedish wife. The final member of the team is Police Assistant Petra Westman who’s not well-informed on the culture and history of Lebanon. This lack of knowledge gets her into a discussion with Peder Fryhk, an apparent expert on the politics of war who picks her up in a bar after she’s had a drink or two. When she wakes in his bed, she’s not sure whether she’s been raped.

This sets us off on a police procedural to solve the murder of Hans. It’s a detailed investigation that eventually turns up three photographs showing the owner of the house as a teacher with groups of school children. Right up to the end, Conny Sjöberg is struggling to connect the other murders. They take place in different parts of Sweden and, to the eyes of the world, the only thing linking them is the age of the victims. Even when he talks with the school teacher, she can only remember the name of one child in the photographs and has no interest in any of the others. She also seems completely unaffected by the discovery of the dead body in her home. It’s only later when the police get a complete list of the children in the class that they realise there have been four murders.

This is a completely unsentimental story about the cruelty people inflict on each other. It does not flinch in examining the detail of the crimes they commit nor the strengths and weaknesses of those who carry the burden of law enforcement. The fact they have become police officers does not mean they are any better than those they chase. It merely signifies that they have jobs to do and most do the best they can. The tone is slightly dry and factual but Conny and Asa Sjöberg’s family life is rich. It makes a pleasant change to have someone at peace with the world in charge of a major police unit. It’s also refreshing to find a man who recognises his own fallibility. All he can hope for is time to put things right when mistakes are made. Petra Westman also features and manages to deal with her problems with relatively calm efficiency. This confirms a general sense of credibility about all the major characters. Even though we’re following a moderately deranged serial killer and watching the investigation as it struggles to make significant progress, the violence of each murder is not sensationalised. Rather it’s all taken as being routine. Taken overall, The Gingerbread House is a highly impressive first book in a series. I look forward to translations of Carin Gerhardsen’s remaining titles.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt

The Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2012 — translation by Tiina Nunnally) is the fifth of the novels featuring Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas and the television journalist Johan Berg. Following in the more general European tradition, this police procedural series depends on a blend between the immediate puzzle to be solved and the evolving stories of all the repeat characters. In this book, we begin with the murder of a quiet family man who’s on holiday with his wife and two small children. No matter where he is, this man is a slave to his routine. Before first light, he’s out of his bed and out for a run. Since they have taken a caravan on their usual plot at the Sundersand campsite on the island of Faro, his usual route is along the beach. A few hours later, his body is found floating in the surf just off the shore. There’s a single gunshot to the head and multiple post-mortem shots to the abdomen. With Knutas away on holiday in Denmark with his wife Lina, it falls to his new deputy, acting Detective Superintendent Karin Jacobsson, to lead the investigation. Naturally, Johan Berg continues his work as a journalist so he’s shadowing the investigation while trying to patch up his relationship problems with Emma Winarve.

 

As is always the case when a murder takes place in a holiday resort, most of the people on the island are passing through. Only a small number of people actually live in this part of Gotland all year round. Since this appears to be a revenge killing involving a considerable amount of rage, the investigation immediately focuses on the victim and his building business. Yet the first set of interviews with his wife and business partner shows no tangible evidence of threats. It seems unlikely that a killer was chasing after him in anger about work done badly or for any other reason. This is confirmed because no-one of significance seems to have taken the ferry to the island that morning. The three people who made the crossing could have had opportunity, but they have alibis and absolutely no apparent motive for wanting to kill this builder. Yet, if this is a revenge killing, there will have to be some consideration of morality. It’s an entirely human and understandable reaction to strike back at someone who has injured you. The practice of an eye for an eye has wide support, but if it was widely adopted, the results would be anarchic. In early history, the persistence of blood feuds destroyed the peace of communities and forced the creation of police forces to enforce laws. In our modern times, the police will always press forward with the investigation, leaving it to the courts to decide whether justice and morality will coincide in the treatment of offenders.

Mari Jungstedt — a perfect example of beauty and brains

 

Showing a certain lack of trust in his deputy, Knutas makes an early return from his holiday, but he’s both relieved and frustrated to find that Karin has done all she should. Now it’s just a case of starting again with a fresh set of eyes to walk the ground and talk to the witnesses. Meanwhile Johan and his camera operator Pia find someone prepared to talk off the record about the family of the victim. It seems there were problems. Men came round to their house and threats were made. The source is not sure of the nationality of these men, saying they may be from one of the Baltic states. Needless to say, the broadcast of this information on the national news is an annoyance to Knutas but, when he pursues it, two clear possibilities for further investigation emerge. One is that the building company has been using illegal labour recruited from outside Sweden. The second is that the victim was dealing with some Russians who were illegally importing alcohol. The pool of people who might have had a motive to kill him narrows.

 

As the investigation proceeds, Johan and Emma seem to have reached the end of the road. Despite the fact they have a young child as a reason for living together as a couple, Emma still can’t forgive herself or Johan for the fact of their child’s kidnapping. For those of you new to this series, the couple meet in Unseen and continue in somewhat tempestuous style in Unspoken. The stresses of the murderous game played out in The Killer’s Art have now driven Emma into a very negative state of mind. We wait to see what she will decide. The same book also saw Knutas struggling with the question of who to promote as his deputy. The choice of Karin was not uncontroversial. There are now hints of mutual sexual interest in this book as the two find themselves with the opportunity to meet socially. With Lina Knutas due to return home from Denmark, however, Anders leaves before anything serious can happen.

 

Knutas continues with his ambivalence towards the press in general and Johan in particular. The more active co-operation between the two that has characterised the earlier books is not on show here. Nevertheless, their independent efforts do move things forward and this allows Johan more time to make decisions about his life. Given the events in The Killer’s Art, Emma’s emotional difficulties are understandable, but I did find this element of the thread less successful. Similarly, I’m not certain Knutas would be tempted by thoughts of a relationship with Karin. There’s no doubt he acted rashly in returning prematurely and it’s right he should feel guilty in undermining her position. This does not seem a reasonable trigger for acting on any sexual impulses.

 

Taken overall and in terms of structure, Mari Jungstedt slowly replays past history in a series of flashbacks. About two-thirds of the way through The Dead of Summer, it becomes fairly obvious what must have happened and, more importantly, who the killer must be. That said, the actual resolution was rather unexpected. I’m not entirely sure it strikes the right note but I understand the emotions involved. Summing up, I was quickly involved and carried through by a nicely paced narrative in a smooth translation. The puzzle itself is elegantly constructed with the hunt for the killer(s) full of tension. The ending leaves everything very nicely poised between the leading characters. If you have read the other books, this will leave you waiting impatiently for the next. That said, this episode is reasonably successful as a stand-alone so, if you accept my advice to try The Dead of Summer, you could pick this up and then slowly work your way through the others. It’s worth the effort.

 

For the review of another book in the series, see Killer’s Art.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

January 10, 2012 2 comments

For anyone who’s been living with his or her head in a bucket over the last three years, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is the second attempt to film the Millennium trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, this time with a script by Steven Zaillian. The first book, Män som hatar kvinnor (literally meaning Men Who Hate Women), is now known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in both written and visual formats. It’s been dominating the crime fiction market around the world since the translations first appeared in 2008.

Daniel Craig looking studious

 

For the purposes of this review, I need to state my prejudices up front. I entered the cinema with the opinion this remake was likely to be inferior to the original. Not surprisingly, I left convinced I had just sat through an unnecessary film. Although this version differs in some respects from the Swedish original, I’ve no sense these differences are improvements. The only advantage derived from this $90 million production, including its quite expensive cast, is that the figures on screen speak in English, thereby avoiding the need for the audience to be comfortable with subtitles. However, so loud was the music soundtrack that I sometimes could not clearly hear what was said, missing the subtitles to help me out. Yet, in the back of my mind, there lurks the suspicion that, if I had not seen the original, I might think this a good film. This is annoying but, since I cannot wind back time and unremember what I saw, I am forced into the inconvenient game of having to try to be fair when comparing the two.

 

The first and most obvious impression you gain as this film starts is you have begun watching one of those smooth Hollywood features. The credits are particularly elegant and, although I have reached rarified levels of old age, there was a not unenjoyable electronic music soundtrack, both pop and more abstract. The direction from David Fincher proves slick and the cinematography from Jeff Cronenweth cleverly manages to desaturate the colours without going over the top in the winter and key indoor scenes. So, with all the production values, this has the look-and-feel of a major studio offering. In itself, this is not a bad thing. It merely signals the director and all those involved are aware of their target audience and their prejudices.

Rooney Mara playing the cuddly version of Lisbeth

 

So, ignoring details, what has changed? Putting it bluntly, this is a sanitised film. Although we have the same basic elements of fellatio, anal rape, the revenge tattooing, both hetero- and homosexual bed scenes, and incest, there’s a distinct effort made to tone it down. This may surprise those of you who have not seen the original, but that clearly earned its R certificate. This is rather more discreet, setting up the scenes or topics, and then hinting at rather than showing the detail. The Nazi element is distinctly underplayed. Indeed, there’s only one passing reference to the anti-Semitism as one of the two motives for the earlier killings. As to those killings, the details are also rather glossed over. It’s quick quotes from the Bible, a few crime scene photographs, Lisbeth talking to local police officers, and a shot of the outside of a barn. Curiously, Sweden has been through an aggressive spring clean. In physical terms, it’s better lit, there’s less rubbish lying around and, consequently, city scenes are much less threatening. We also lack the pervasive air of sexism that represents a danger to unconventional women when they appear in public (as you will understand from the title of the novel, this film version is supposed to be about men’s behaviour towards women). I’m left with the conclusion the American market cannot stomach anything too graphic, is moderately puritanical about sex, prefers not to confront sexism, and is completely allergic to any explicit racism.

Christopher Plummer dictating notes on acting to Daniel Craig

 

On the acting front, Daniel Craig turns in a pleasingly restrained performance as Mikael Blomkvist. He proves to be moderately convincing as an investigator and analyst with the script allowing him to be moderately computer-literate so he can manipulate the photographic evidence to get the desired results. No doubt his female fans will be pleased with the amount of time he spends without too many clothes interfering with the view. On balance, this is impressive. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Rooney Mara. This is not the same dangerous Lisbeth Salander, both physically and intellectually, we see with Noomi Rapace. If anything, Rooney Mara comes over as passive-aggressive, preferring to avoid eye contact, and avoiding excess in dress. Indeed, she’s actively caring for her previous judicial custodian and is the one looking to make the running in a relationship with Mikael Blomkvist. She’s definitely a more vulnerable human being than the person who dominates the screen in the original. As a point of contrast, there’s little in our first view of Rooney Mara when she meets with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to suggest she can be a chameleon, able to adopt a different persona and pass herself off as a high-flying executive in the offices of international banks and financial institutions. Yet there’s no doubt Noomi Rapace has more than enough self-confidence to steal a sizeable chunk of Wennerström’s illicitly acquired wealth. Her screen version of Lisbeth mocks the inadequate men around her and, when words are insufficient, she’s prepared to fight. In the original film, she kills the murderer. The remake resurrects a slightly different version of the novel’s ending where the murderer dies in a car “accident”. That’s consistent with the desire to protect this version of Lisbeth and not allow her to be a killer (although this would be manslaughter if the police could find evidence of her chasing the car). Stellan Skarsgård is pleasing as Martin Vanger with the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer as the patriarch who sets the ball rolling.

Stellan Skarsgard enjoying desaturated colours

 

The production focusses on Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara with most of the other roles relegated to extended walk-ons. Frankly, I found this quite long to sit through at 158 minutes. In this I note the original is only a few minutes shorter, but it packs more punch and has less interest in the aftermath of the investigation. Although Daniel Craig comes out of this well, Rooney Mara is very disappointing. So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is a stylish if somewhat flashy Hollywood film with music that’s sometimes too loud and a somewhat eviscerated version of the plot. In toning the story down for the domestic American box office, I feel the best parts of the original have been thrown away. But it seems to be earning back the money invested, so enough people are paying to see it and word-of-mouth is not killing attendance. To that extent, the production team must be congratulated. They have pitched a film at their market. Those of us who fail to share this myopic culture can only shake our heads in sadness. Americans deny themselves so much by refusing to see foreign-language films, particularly when they deal with sexual and racial themes. In some respects, I think this isolationism dangerous because there’s little understanding of the world outside their borders. Unless the USA tones down its militarism, this will only lead to more misunderstandings and increasing alienation.

 

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)

October 26, 2010 12 comments

In the written form of story-telling, you can shift the point of point to give a different perspective on the emerging narrative. This is more difficult in the cinema. That’s what makes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest slightly different to the preceding two in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but no less engrossing.

Some thirty years ago, a friend of mine did quite a lot of business in Sweden and I always remember him saying, “If you want anything done, you have to form a committee.” I don’t know whether the same decision-making philosophy applies today, but he described Swedish society as being co-operative in spirit with more people admitted to stakeholder roles.

The best way to think about this trilogy is to see it as two separate narrative arcs. The “girl” starts off defending her mother from an abusive father, ends up punished in a mental hospital, and then released on licence into a corrupt Guardianship system. The journalist has had an eventful life investigating the rich and famous, is the joint founder of a high-profile and respected journal, and continues his pursuit of justice.

This makes the trilogy all about pace and scale. In the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the journalist sets off in classical detective story format. From his point of view, we see the investigation develop. This is small-scale and limited by what he can find. Initially, his progress is slow until the girl makes it a team effort. Then the pace picks up as they begin to see beyond the immediate and glimpse the bigger picture. By the end of the film, we have some real insight into the journalist and observe the girl without being given enough information to understand her. This is reflected in the descriptive title to the film. This is “as she is”.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a title in the past tense. We are immediately referred back to the original defensive act as the context for the current action. This switches the frame of the film from a genre-specific detective format to that of a psychological thriller where we begin to see why the girl has been victimised. This means we step back from the more intimate story between the journalist and the girl, and now see them as players in a bigger game.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is also a title in the past tense and a reference back to the same attack on her father, now given fresh impetus from her new attempt to kill him. The frame for the narrative is completely expanded to include the state. If there’s one basic truth about governments, it’s that one journalist cannot investigate and prosecute high-ranking civil servants or politicians. Only a state has the authority to look at itself and decide whether anything should be done. Although there’s a wonderful mythology surrounding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s contribution to the downfall of President Nixon, there was a continuing investigation, initially FBI-based, looking for a link between the Watergate break-in and the re-election campaign committee. Our fictional journalist is no better than the real-world equivalents and can do nothing more than hitch his wagon to the Swedish Prime Minister’s task force. He stops being the “hero” in the Hollywood sense of the word, and becomes a cog in the machine. He joins the committee to get things done.

The girl has a different role to play. In a patriarchal society, there are penalties for attacking your father. It matters not whether this is in defence of your mother or yourself, you will be put on trial. Thus, the girl must be seen as the victim both personally, because she has been seriously injured, and legally, because the courts are to be used to lock her away again in “the” mental hospital. That’s why it’s such a pleasing touch when she asserts her individuality by dressing in high style for her court appearances. She will not be intimidated.

As a drama produced by Yellow Bird, this is a flat, ensemble piece with everyone pitching in to get a successful resolution. The other journalists at the Millennium find key information, the journalist’s sister is the girl’s lawyer. Even Plague gets a featuring moment or two in finally hacking the corrupt psychiatrist’s laptop. There are new players on the side of “right” and, of course, it must all be resolved with the girl released from custody.

The moment at the end between the journalist and the girl is touching and hits exactly the right note. In this concluding film, Noomi Rapace is a largely silent presence. It’s a nicely judged performance as she works her way back to health and then endures the trial. Michael Nyqvist continues as the dogged investigator although, as in the first film, he is forced to fight for his life. Yet again, he is saved by a woman. This is as it should be in a film about patriarchalism. A few words must be said about Anders Ahlbom as the venal and perverted psychiatrist and Lena Endre as the brave co-founder of Millennium and the journalist’s lover. In an ensemble film where everyone must work for the good of the team, they produced particularly clever performances. Ahlbom is the epitome of cunning, never overconfident and sufficiently aware to understand when it’s better to say nothing. Endre rises magnificently to the thankless role. She must be intimidated as the co-founder of Millennium and jealous of the girl who seems to be seducing her man away. It could have been the worst kind of hysteria, but it was muted and sensitive.

I have two reservations about the end-product. The first is that, with everyone spying on everyone else, it’s difficult at times to know which side we are seeing. The second is more serious. The Niedermann thread is completely wasted. He should have been caught at the end of the second film. In this episode, his only function is to interrupt the development of the major plot themes, surviving to allow the girl an opportunity to show she is back on form. In reality, all the post-trial excitement does is delay the meeting we want to see with the journalist. A more subtle way to demonstrate her recovery should have been found.

This is a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the first two. It’s genuinely engrossing and produces a highly satisfying resolution to the girl’s narrative arc with a senior agent of the Swedish government giving evidence for her in the trial. There’s no better way for a state to acknowledge its past mistakes. But, if you have not seen the first two, do not go and see this. You will be thoroughly confused.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

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