My eyes are hurting. I took up the book at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and was compelled to put it down when Amit told me it was midnight on Sunday night. I’d begun the book a couple of days earlier, I don’t recall exactly when. It would not be incorrect to say that the days have passed in a blur since then, with all time not spent with the book being spent waiting to get back to the book. Husband and kids have been given short shrift.
It’s a long, long time since a book had me hooked this way. To put it another way, this is probably one of the best – if not the best – action-thriller books I have ever read. Not that I’ve read much of this genre in recent years, but there was a time 20-something years ago when I read them faster than they were churned out. In those days, I was very well acquainted with the works of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth and the rest of their ilk. I recently read and complained at great length about Frederick Forsyth’s recent attempt to write a book – The Cobra. At that time, I was wondering if I’d forgotten what this genre was like, or if I was wrong to have a completely different level of expectation from what The Cobra provided. This book proves that I wasn’t wrong and I hadn’t forgotten.
It has everything that Cobra doesn’t. It draws you in quickly. It has a vastly complicated plot with many different aspects, but all the threads are drawn together and tightened and then unraveled in an absolutely masterful way. There are as many or possibly even more characters than in Cobra, but the key characters are well defined and even some of the bit-part players are more memorable and human than the key characters of Cobra. You know, as you read the book, that each character was a person to the author – with a complete history, context, and three-dimensional personality, only a fraction of which is actually specified in the writing. That’s something completely lacking in Cobra – each character was just a pawn on a chessboard in an immensely boring and low-skill version of the game.
The book has an incredible pace – 740-odd pages of non-stop – not action, but development. All the time, there’s something going on. There’s never a dull moment, never a pause. You get to see a piece of everybody’s picture, so that often you know things that another actor in the plot doesn’t know. It makes you wonder how on earth the author managed to keep it all straight in his mind and get it down on paper without stumbling all over the hundred tangled threads of the plot. What’s more, each change in perspective, each shift in scene or setting, is done smoothly, flawlessly. Despite the number of people and perspectives, the reader is rarely confused.
One of the things I found fascinating was the ethical norms implicit in the book. There are the bad guys who should have been the good guys (and thought of themselves as such but kind of got carried away). There are the good guys who are law-enforcement guys and tread very, very carefully, always considering which laws they are over-stepping and why and by how much. There are the good rogue guys – the journalists, who play by completely different rules from the law-enforcement guys, twist and bend a lot of laws, but still attempt to be largely ethical. And then there’s the victim – victimized, vengeful, violent, and not afraid to break any law that comes in her way.
I’ve never read a book with so many women in it, many of them in quite significant roles both in the plot and in their society. And so much openness about matters sexual. There’s no explicit sex scene, but sex is treated in such a matter-of-fact way that for me it was completely surprising. Very early in the book, there’s reference to a man and his partner – his male partner – which is mentioned so casually I actually had to rub my eyes and check that both people were male. (Their names are confusing.) Later on, a woman takes our hero to bed in a very brazen way (multiple times, I might add) and another woman seems to have an interesting marriage which not only has involved a threesome at least once, but also allows the woman to have a lover on the side that her husband knows and doesn’t bother about. Then our victim, who is not at all the passive, helpless kind, propositions a man on one occasion and a woman on another. The man accepts, the woman doesn’t, and both of them are only slightly taken aback by it. All this is very strange not just to my not-very-conservative Indian way of thinking, but also in the context of so many other books mostly by American authors, where sex is usually not such an extremely casual matter. One thing that does come out, because of this or regardless of it, is the position of equality and strength of women. It is tempting to say that this is reflective of Swedish society, but, who knows, it might just be this particular author, or this particular work of fiction.
The conversation in the book is fun. A lot of it is very terse and snappy and some parts are breathtakingly rude. Again, I don’t know whether this is reflective of Swedish society in general, or just the way people in this particular book talk. Either way, it was enjoyable and subtly added another dimension of racy action to the book.
Unfortunately, without realising it, I picked the third in a set of three books – because this was the title I’d heard most about. I am sure I’m going to read the first two books in the series as well – but I’d better not do it right away or my family will disown me (not that I’d notice it). My greatest regret is that the author, Steig Larsson, unfortunately died unexpectedly after having completed only 3 books – apparently, he intended a series of 10. What a tragedy. But, when they turn this into a movie, as I’m sure they will sooner or later, I’ll be standing in line.