Monday, May 10, 2010

A Study of The Girl Who Played with Fire. What Makes a Good Book?

I am currently reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the three books in this series are an international publishing sensation.

This article is not intended to be a book review, just some observations I have made to myself while reading it.

I’m enjoying it very much. I’m about ¾ of the way through at this point.

Larsson is breaking just about all of the rules we are taught in Crime Writing 101 as well as putting in all the things that editors and agents tell us to take out.

The book is over 700 pages, but the print is large and is almost double spaced. I have to believe that the publishers wanted it to look larger than it really is. In normal paperback print it would come to about 400 pages. What does this tell us about the trend towards shorter and shorter books?

The murder happens around page 250. Remember this rule: A mystery must have a body in the first chapter?

Several major coincidences propel the first part of the plot. We have not one or two but at least three instances of character X walking into a bar or down the street and seeing character Y or Z. And this is in a big modern city.

Extensive listing of what the character buys on a shopping spree and her grocery list. Huh? Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea and everything she buys is mentioned – by brand name. Same with her groceries.

Re-telling of what happened in the first book.

Computer jargon.

A character who is not only super computer-savvy and a mathematical genius but also an expert in disguise, speaks many foreign languages, and can change accent as required – in those foreign languages. That strains credibility.

But you know what? None of it matters. The long list of Ikea furnishings helps to establish that the character is obsessive. It certainly doesn’t matter that the murder doesn’t happen until more than a quarter way through, the tension is building and we know something is going to happen. The character’s skill with disguise and language is what helps her to avoid her enemies, and we are rooting for her to do so.

The book is excessively long; it breaks many of the supposed rules; the character strains credibility.

Yet it not only works, it works well enough to be one of the biggest books of the decade.

Maybe the traditional wisdom in publishing is all wrong.

I'm just asking.


Jill said...

You have to know what the rules are in order to know when and how to break them.... I guess???

Vicki Delany said...

Good point Jill. I do sometimes think that mid-list authors are held to a lot higher standard than bestselling ones. J. Patterson anyone?

Donis Casey said...

I don't know that any rule is unbreakable. If it's interesting, it works. In one of my books, the murder doesn't happen until the middle of the book - or more accurately, it happened before the book opened, but the reader doesn't know it until half-way through. I worried over doing it that way, but it worked. As my mother always said, "Nothing succeeds like success." Sometimes writing in a way that challenges convention makes the story more surprising and intriguing.

Susan D said...

Well, I sure found that Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was breaking them all over, including all that narrative and introspection, and I didn't care. And the worst (and I still didn't care) was that after the main mystery was resolved the secondary quest continued on for several more chapters.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Sometimes I think we have to just loosen up, ignore the nay-sayers. Hard to do, I know. Back to TGWTDT, though, have you seen the movie yet? Follows the book very closely (it's long, too), but you never look at your watch. I found watching some of those scenes profoundly disturbing. They were easier to read.

Rick Blechta said...

Yeah, Debby, but a large number of those nay-sayers are publishers or editors! You've got to get one of them to believe in what you've written or you're dead in the water.

There's the real rub.

Larsen's books do break a lot of rules, but hats off to the person who originally believed in him.

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