Sophomore efforts rarely surpass their debut predecessors, and this sequel to the absorbing thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suffers from the usual sophomore slump. What continues to be most compelling, if over-the-top unrealistic, is the titular character of Lisbeth Salander, who is the tiny Swedish version of a superhero. She may not be faster than a speeding bullet, but . . . . She can hack into any computer in the world! She solves Fermat’s theorem without a computer! She’s a chess whiz who has never studied the game! She has a photographic memory! She can take down two Hell’s Angels despite weighing only ninety pounds! Oh, and in this book she also literally rises from the dead. Your move, Wonder Woman. Top that.
Salander is so far from a typical heroine that one almost feels guilty rooting for her. Although she has a moral center, her take on reality is not exactly normal, and when someone crosses her, Salander’s vengeance is as swift as it is unflinching. In this book we do come to understand some of the back story that has made Salander who she is, and Stieg Larsson does a terrific job of bringing her childhood to life.
What’s wrong with this book is that it apparently had no editing. At all. Despite some unexpectedly terrific characterizations and a strong idea for a plot, the story often fizzles. In part this is because of the first 100 pages, which are largely irrelevant to the rest of the story. The novel has the feel of a lot of rookie fiction, where an inexperienced author began taking the story in one direction, then changed his mind but neglected to revise. A good editor adds value by lopping off the unnecessary or distracting material (which is admittedly often painful to the novelist, who is a bit too enmeshed to see the big picture). The editor draws out the best stuff, ties up the loose ends, and banishes the early draft material.
That did not happen here. The novel begins with Salander having a completely separate adventure in the Caribbean, where she solves a mystery that turns out to be wholly unrelated to the rest of the story and features characters that we never hear from again. It’s bizarre not only from an artistic perspective (this is so amateurish it’s hard to believe it is being published in the US by FSG) and a commercial one (what book marketer in her right mind couldn’t see that the real value here would be in selling the first 100 pages in a separate Kindle edition as a novella about Salander’s lost year? Ka-ching!).
I am aware that the author died after turning in the manuscripts for these books. That’s sad and damned inconvenient, but it’s still no excuse for the lack of editorial intervention. A dead author does not let a live editor off the hook. This could have been a great book; instead, it is merely a decent one.
Good editors correct their authors’ oversights, both large and small. Large oversights can be things like the fact that Stockholm comes across as a small town of about 35,000 people, where you keep running into the same people and everyone is intimately connected. (Apparently it actually has more than one and a quarter million inhabitants.) Some contrivances like this are forgivable in a thriller because they are necessary to move the plot along, but when the plot repeatedly hinges upon such chance meetings, it becomes more and more improbable. Small oversights are problems like the size of Salander’s luxurious new apartment, which is described as cavernous at 3,800 square feet. When Blomkwist visits the apartment, he realizes that Salander actually only lives in three of the rooms, and that the other eighteen are unused. Since there appears to be only one spare bedroom besides the one she sleeps in, what we have here is a two-bedroom apartment that is under 4,000 square feet but has a total of twenty-one rooms. Not very likely, unless those rooms are closets.
Yes, I realize I am being quite nitpicky here, but that is what editors do: remove mistakes, eliminate distractions, and excise any plot element that beggars belief. One thing the editor seems to have done, which is actually irritating, is interrupt the thriller periodically with footnotes about incidents or people in Sweden. Footnotes! In a potboiler! As if stupid American readers couldn’t Google what we didn’t understand.
And yet I enjoyed reading the book. It’s fascinating, and Salander is an unforgettable character. Despite the ridiculously slow start, the rest of the novel adopts a brisk pace and is hard to put down. It would have been even more enjoyable had the editor not fallen asleep at the switch. I will give the third book a try when it comes out in May.