The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s nest.

The Millenium Trilogy draws to a close with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.

Salander is plotting her revenge – against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back.
Following on directly from the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander is in hospital and Mikael Blomvist is still investigating the conspiracy surrounding Soviet defector Zalachenko. Salander is recovering from a bullet wound in the head, but has inadvertendly triggered a chain of events within the most secretive of government agencies. They are determined to cover their tracks at all costs and having already had her declared mentally ill and sentenced her to an instituion, they want her to go back there for good. 
As with the previous books, it takes some time for the plot to get one. It is very much a continuation of the second book rather than stand alone novel and so it is vital to read the other two books to understand the story and characters. It does improves on the second book though in that Salander is present throughout, even though she starts off severly injured and incapacitated in hospital. Without her we are left with an interesting but somewhat dry investigation into the Swedish secret service. Soon though the book picks up, with the courtroom scenes being particularly compelling.
It is remamrkable that the pace and momentum are kept up over what are considerably long and complex plots. Plotlines interweave with one another but it remains clear and concise. Once again it was only the Swedish names that remain a potential stumbling point. The lengthy trial scenes are perhaps Larsson at his most grandstanding, where the Swedish judical system is examined and taken apart, and the authors own views come on a little too strong. This final book could have done with a bit more editing as at times there are few lapses and certain sections could have been tightened up, yet it still remains a thrill as the book draws to its conclusion. Not everything is tied up neatly at the end, with the whereabouts of one character still not resolved…
For me, the first book remains the best, with the second the weakest of the three. It remains to be a crying shame that the author died without knowing his success and overall the Milleniunm series has been a triumph.  As it is though, it remains a thrilling and fitting conclusion to a remarkable series of books featuring one of the most interesting and complex heroines in recent crime fiction history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Millenium trilogy continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and as with the first book, the novel takes a while to get going as Larsson puts all the pieces in place. Once they are though, the book moves at a frantic pace. Set some time after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, we see the fallout of the Wennerstrom affair as Blomvist and Salander revel in their glory. Yet two shocking murders take place and Salander is the suspect….

Lisbeth Salander is a wanted woman. Two Millennium journalists about to expose the truth about sex trafficking in Sweden are murdered, and Salander’s prints are on the weapon. Her history of unpredictable and vengeful behaviour makes her an official danger to society – but no-one can find her. Mikael Blomkvist, editor-in-chief of Millennium, does not believe the police. Using all his magazine staff and resources to prove Salander’s innocence, Blomkvist also uncovers her terrible past, spent in criminally corrupt institutions. Yet Salander is more avenging angel than helpless victim. She may be an expert at staying out of sight – but she has ways of tracking down her most elusive enemies.

It begins with an extensive look at Salander as she travels the globe, examining her past, and why she is who she is today. Then the book shifts to its focus to Sweden and events there. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive, hidden away from the investigation as she refuses to be victimised by her ordeal. She becomes determined to find out the identity of the killer and turns the table on them, going on the attack to deal with the situation as her distrust of the police and the law forces her to act on her own. As the investigation continues, events from Salander’s past are gradually revealed, leading to shocking and stunning climax. We are left on a cliffhanger, with little actually resolved as it leads on to the third and final instalment.

As before, women remain a theme as it examines how the state cares for the mentally ill or those that are being abused. Also through Salander, Larsson crusades against the media, as she is exploited and defamed as she remains in hiding. As it delves into Salander’s past, we are exposed to an intricate conspiracy that touches at everything in Swedish life. He asks that if we cannot trust our own governments then who can we trust?As with the previous book, there are flaws in the novel. The villians are rather caricatured, with Niedermann, the blond ‘hulk’ suffering particularly from this as he resembles a James Bond bad guy. There are sections where Salander is not present and the book focusses on the manahunt for her, and while it was enjoyable, you are left waiting for her return. It’s about here that the trilogy itself shifts the focus onto to Salander and while I can’t help thinking that while Larsson would have preferred us to treat Blomvist as the main protagonist, it is Salander’s books from now on.

With an ever expanding plot, The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks the taut plot and the unravelling of the first book. The long section where Salander is in hiding means that the book’s most interesting character is missing, but it remains a thrilling and entertaining read from start to finish.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Part One of the Milleniun trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, introduces us to journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker and social outcast Lisbeth Salander. It’s an intelligent thriller with a conscience, with a complicated plots that demands concentration to match.

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder – and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet’s disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

The novel is split between the shady secrets of the wealthy Vanger family and the murky dealings of a famous businessman. One flaw that many have commented on is that the central drive of the book does take a little while to get going. The first 50 pages or so are Larsson giving us the background to the Wennerstrom affair and while it may seem irelevant at first, by the conclusion it all comes together. Some may find like I did that it was difficult to get in to initialy, with a variety of unusual Swedish names to keep track of, but its not long until the pace picks up.
The story begins by focusing on Blomkvist, a journalist just as Larsson was, but once Salander arrives the focus of the novel shifts. She’s one of the most interesting heroines of late, lacking in people skills but making up for it with her fierce intelligent. She operates on the edge of society, preferring to be on the fringes, where she feels more comfortable and accepted.  While she may seem to be single-minded and at time vicious, Salander is also incorruptible with a strong moral code. She is the most ‘good’ of all the ‘good guys’ in the book.
Despite this, it can be a brutal book, as it examines sex and violence, particularly towards women. Some may feel that it even oversteps the mark, but here Larsson is creating a dark story which reflects something of the darker side of life in Sweden. There has been arguements of late regarding Larsson’s attitudes towards women and the interpretation of feminism within the novel but it’s a difficult one to judge. If Larsson was with us today, he would no doubt be able to defend the accusations made towards the trilogy.
Larsson may also need to defend his writing style, as at times it falters where Larsson adds in a few too many details to the story. I don’t think we really need to know the exact type of laptop a character is using, or the precise food they eat for breakfast. In the case of the laptop, we are also lectured on the merits of certain models but it also instantly dates the novel. Perhaps it was the case of the translation but at times it does become a little too ‘clunky’ for my liking. Larsson is a little blunt in expressing his opinions and his politcal views are hardly disguised at all. It also comes close to stretching credibility, as Blomkvist certainly manages to jump into bed with a number of women. Perhaps a little bit of wishing thinking on the author’s part?
Despite its flaws, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was one of those rare books which I read it ferociously and then when I stopped, it was all I could actually think about. The way the plots intertwine, along with the interesting characters somehow grabbed and then dominated my attention throughout. Quite simply, I adored it and would recommend this intelligent, thought-provoking and adult thriller to anyone.

Interview with Jeremy Duns

Recently I reviewed Jeremy Duns‘ Free Agent, a fantastic Cold War thriller, and Jeremy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and his writing process.

What drew you to writing in this particular genre? I was brought up on a diet of my father’s Fleming and occasionally Leslie Charteris novels and so naturally progressed from there. Could you see yourself writing in another genre at all?

I’d always wanted to write novels, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Like most English boys I grew up watching the Bond films, and when I was a little older I’d read Len Deighton and John le Carre and some other spy stuff, but it was never a genre I was very much into. That changed in my twenties, when quite by chance I stumbled on some second-hand paperbacks in a bookshop in Antwerp, and I started devouring a lot of spy fiction, especially from the Cold War. Most writers had moved on since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I thought it was such a fascinating era, and began to wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to revisit it. After all, in the Sixties a lot of thriller-writers wrote about the Second World War, and there’s a lot we know about the Cold War now that nobody did at the time. So that was the seed of the idea.

In addition, the time periods you address are quite fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by the end of WWII when Russia was still an ally and how that emerged into the Cold War, but very little seems to address it. Likewise, I knew little of Britain’s involvement in Nigeria. When did you decide to place the story in these timeframes? Was it intentional that little had been written about it?

I wanted to write something set in the Sixties, because I tend to enjoy thrillers from that decade best, and I also thought it had the most room for reinterpretation. When we think of the Sixties, it’s often the very large events: Woodstock, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the Beatles. I wanted to pick at the edges of it a little, at some of the things that had been forgotten. Spy novels at the time were mostly set in Eastern Europe, but I knew that the Cold War had ranged all over the world, from Asia to Africa. I had grown up in Nigeria and remembered hearing about Biafra as a child – the war finished before I was born. Reading up about it, I was fascinated to discover how extensive the superpowers’ involvement had been, and slowly the ideas started to crystallise. The flashback to the end of the Second World War came from researching the history of MI6, and also an article I wrote as a journalist in which I interviewed a few SAS veterans who had been involved in war crimes investigations in Germany just after the war’s end. I’m fascinated by how World War Two became the Cold War, and how this great new enemy of the Soviet Union emerged so soon after it had been our ally.

When I started reading, I was quite surprised by the choice of first-person narrative, as it was something I wasn’t expecting. I think now that it actually makes the story stronger, especially as we have to trust Dark on his word as he’s our narrator, though ever since reading The Turn of the Screw I’ve been suspicious of first-person narration! When did you decide to use this form and did it cause any problems? Using a fixed perspective means you can’t cut away to another narrative at any point or to another character.

Whenever I read about Kim Philby or other double agents, I always wanted to know more: what had they felt at that moment, what must it have been like? So I thought that I would use the first person to try to take readers right inside the head of someone in this position. I thought it would increase the suspense, but also make it easier for readers to empathise with him, or at least be harder to despise him outright. We’re right there with him every step of his journey. I thought it would make for a more exciting and intense reading experience.

It’s certainly an interesting era and I look forward to it being explored further. From the bibliography its clear you did a lot of research – how much did this influence the story at all? Was Dark’s story already planned out or was it a product of your reading?

I had the ideas early on that the protagonist would be a double agent, that it would be first person and that it would be set in the 60s and hopefully shed new light on the Cold War. And, in fact, the basic premise of the first chapter. Then I started thinking about location, and narrowed it down to Africa, then Nigeria and the civil war there. Then I researched, for about a year, not writing any of the book but taking tons of notes. I spent quite a bit of time working on a plot with all these elements that took place in 1967, near the start of the war, but it didn’t work. I read about Harold Wilson’s trip to Nigeria in 1969 and something clicked, so I started to pursue that, and from then on the plot slowly worked itself out and I researched to shape it.

I particularly enjoyed the style and tone of the book and a lot of readers mention how it reminds them of Deighton and le Carre. Obviously it’s a compliment but do you think they influenced your own style or was it deliberate?

Yes, both Deighton and le Carre were influences on me, especially the former. I love the sharpness and sardonic humour of Deighton’s early novels and wanted to reflect a little of that. London Dossier, a guidebook Deighton put together in 1967, was also a great source of information on the time for me, and very evocative. The biggest influence of me, though, was another British spy novelist, Elleston Trevor, who is sadly not as well known today. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote a series of first-person spy novels about a British agent called Quiller, which I love. I wanted to revive that sort of thriller.

The book moves at a breakneck speed, with a jaw-dropping first chapter and the pace doesn’t really stop. Did you always know it was going to be a trilogy and did this affect your writing at all? Any hints or clues readers should look out for that may signal what lies ahead for Dark?

Regarding the pace, as mentioned I’m a fan of the Quiller novels, and also the recent Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon. I wanted to write something that was very suspenseful and taut, and which would get readers really sweating. I had the idea for a trilogy fairly early. I was finding the research on Biafra fascinating, but I thought that Paul Dark had more of a journey in him than one book, and I was also discovering other episodes in the Cold War that were attracting me, and which I could imagine him being involved in. But because of Dark’s situation, I didn’t think it could be a traditional series, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, in which each book is generally a free-standing adventure. You couldn’t really have 12 novels with Dark continually evading exposure a a double agent. Len Deighton wrote a brilliant series of trilogies – so I thought I’d start with one of those! As far as the writing went, I plotted a rough arc of the trilogy beforehand, and have kept reasonably close to that. And I’ve tried to seed a few clues in Free Agent as to what will happen in Free Country and Free World. Look out for locations mentioned that Dark has been in before, and characters who are discussed but do not appear.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns is out now and published by Simon and Schuster.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns

Get ready for a new Dark Age.

Jeremy Duns’ Free Agent is a refreshing and exciting new novel where nothing is quite what it seems. Following a high level KGB defection and the suggestion of a double agent, MI6 man Paul Dark finds himself doubting everything he ever knew and must not as in most cases prove his innocence, but hide his guilt…

Paul Dark is our ‘hero’, billed as a mixture of Jason Bourne and James Bond. We should really dislike Dark – he’s cold-blooded, arrogant and a killer – but you find yourself drawn to him and even empathising with him. You want him to succeed, even though he’s ultimately one of the bad guys. His actions in the opening chapter are genuinely shocking, but then you want him to get away with it.

Interestingly, he is also our narrator. It does mean that the novel is confined to only the one viewpoint and in a book where our hero’s allegiances are being tested from the very beginning, it does leave you in an interesting relationship with the protagonist. I felt at times doubting what I was being told by Dark and questioning his authority, but then enjoying it all the more as you feel that you are there with Dark, trying to work out what is going on. Is he double-crossing us or is he being used as well?

The Mistress of Nothing

In Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress Of Nothing, we follow the true story of Lady Duff Gordon, suffering from the debiliating effects of tuberculois, and her maid Sally, as they travel to Cairo and Luxor, where  Gordon seeks refuge from her illness.

Away from England, Lady Gordon and Sally together cast off the European dress that has stifled them both physically and mentally, and begin to explore the freedom that Egypt offers. Yet it is the arrival of Omar, Lady Gordon’s dragoman, who leads them further into the heart of Egypt, and forcing them to re-examine the relationship between themselves and also their European roots.

It is Sally that narrates their story and it is tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. You can almost feel the heat as Pullinger delves deeper into the intriguing tale and the relationship between the two women. Yet soon, and somewhat inevitably, we see that appearances can be deceptive and Lady Gordon cannot help but keep her English mentatility. Perhaps tellingly, while Lady Gordon may dress like a man and imerse herself in the culture around her, they still reside in ‘The French House’, leased from the French Consul, which remains a link to Europe and her colonial past. Without revealing too much, Sally is cruelly reminded of her position and her reliance on Lady Gordon as her maid and the remainder of her story is tinged with sadness. She is offered a glimpse of a different life for herself, only for circumstances to overtake her.

Pullinger shows us Egypt and bring it to life as it really was. The Egyptian people are kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and it is the British expatriates who are judgemental and critical, showing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. As Anthony Sattin remarks on the book’s cover,  Pullinger’s work is not “an Orientalist fantasy”; the only fantasy that remains is that of Sally and her hope that she may escape her lowly status as the mistress of nothing. With Sally as our narrator, I was somewhat expecting the blame for her situation to be placed solely at the feet of Lady Gordon, but Pullinger never quite allows this to occur. Lady Gordon blames Sally for causing her predicament but we are left looking for answers elsewhere. The blame is a product of its time, in particular the rules and conventions of English thinking and Sally’s position within her household as a lady’s maid.

Pullinger’s novel draws you in to the heartbreaking tale, providing us with a wonderful social commentary of the time amid the searing heat of Egypt. Little is documentated of Sally Naldrett, but now she has finally gained a voice after many, many years.

Interview with Kate Pullinger

This was originally published 22 July 2009.

Recently I reviewed Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing, a story tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. I was fortunate enough to be a part of Kate’s Virtual Book Tour and so I asked her a few questions about her novel, what she’s working on next and also some advice for budding authors.

In the press release, it states that you took over ten years to write the novel. Did you ever feel like giving up? Very little is known about Sally, there is no photograph of her that we know of, so was telling her story and what it illuminated of the time what drew you to it? Was it always going to be her account and her narration from the beginning?

Despite the myriad problems I had with this novel, and the fact that I abandoned it a number of times, I never did consider abandoning it completely.  Throughout all that time the true story of Sally and that moment in the boat on the Nile on Christmas Eve stuck with me.  But you are right – there is nothing known about Sally and what happened to her after she left, and this was what opened up the story as a fiction (as opposed to biography or history) for me.  I always feel like she drew the short straw, to put it mildly, and I wanted to know what happened to her, so I had to make it up!  So her story was always my focus but it took me years to figure out the best way to tell that story.  I really struggled to find the right point of view or narrative voice – of course, with hindsight, it seems completely obvious that the story had to be told in the first person from Sally’s point of view – but this was not clear to me for a long time!  Another factor that kept me going was Egypt and that period of history – so interesting, such a beautiful and complicated country, and Luxor itself is a place of great magic and mystery.

I enjoyed how you really felt that you were there in Egypt and got a sense of the time and place. How much research was needed and how did you ensure the balance between setting the scene and focussing on the story?

I did a huge amount of research and then had to forget it all in order to tell a good story (as opposed to writing a very bad historical account!).  But I love research, so that was pure pleasure.  For me the Nile and Egypt and Luxor are a huge part of the story so finding the balance between that and the story wasn’t difficult – the country is almost like an extra character in the story.

Staying with the depiction of Egypt, you show us the majority of the Egyptian people as kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and the British as being judgemental and critical, exposing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. This is in combination with the unrest in Egypt and the friction that occurs between the two cultures. How did you go about dealing with these issues and the culture clashes, while acknowledging the attitudes of the time in comparison to our own today?

This is difficult and I won’t really know whether or not I’ve succeeded until I have more Egyptian readers.  Of course we always tend to project our own values backwards into other times, and I’m sure I’m as guilty of that as the next writer.  Culture clashes are a theme I’ve explored in a lot of my writing; it is something that fascinates me (perhaps because I’m a foreigner in the UK, coming originally from Canada).  One thing I took very seriously was trying to get the elements of Islam present in the book correct, and to get that right in terms of my Egyptian characters.  I also spent a number of months with an Egyptian tutor trying to learn Arabic, which turns out to be extraordinarily difficult!!!  There are many contemporary resonances in this story and even the power relationship at the heart of the book – Lady and maid – is not obsolete in the 21st century!  Lady Duff Gordon was a true radical in terms of her attitudes toward Imperialism and having her as a prism through which to view Egyptian politics of the time was immensely helpful.

In my review I touched upon the sense of ‘blame’, how to an extent I expected Sally to despise Lady Gordon for treating her in such a way, yet you are left with very mixed feelings. In moving away from Europe to a difficult culture the two women become freer, almost becoming equals and there is a sense of duty and respect between the two women. Yet sadly, neither can escape their upbringings and the situation Sally finds herself in is a product of the times. As the novel concludes though, Sally seems to have a brighter future ahead of her in one way, with options that she never had before. Would you consider exploring Sally’s story further at all in the future? Perhaps looking at the new place she finds herself in within society?

I wouldn’t rule out revisiting Sally in Egypt at some point!  Egyptian history in the 19th and 20th century is really very interesting and to set a story at a slightly later date would be fun. However, I can’t imagine doing that anytime in the near future.  This book took me so long to write, finishing it was most peculiar – I was so accustomed to having it nag at me at all times.  I miss it, but it is also a great relief to have finished it, and now to see it in the world in the lovely edition that Serpent’s Tail have published.  Let’s wait and see how it does, how it makes it’s way in the world, and what readers think of it!

And just touching on the writing process itself, what are you working on next? With your writing, do you have a set routine or structure when working on a project? And what advice would you have for other writers or would-be writers?

At the moment I have three main projects, all very different.  I’ve been commissioned to write a libretto for an opera based on ‘Dorian Gray’ – my first ever libretto, so that’s a steep learning curve but very exciting.  I’m also co-creating nine multimedia short stories aimed at secondary school kids, with my digital collaborator Chris Joseph, for educational publishing Rising Stars.  And I’m collaborating with an artist called James Coupe on a project that creates films using facial recognition software – the first stage of this is taking place in Ulverston over the summer.  These last two projects reflect the other side of my writing life, which is working on digital projects.

I try to carve out as much writing time as possible and I seem to be getting a bit better at that currently – the demands of e-mail, twitter, blogs, and all the other online communication sometimes feel overwhelming to me, but I do seem to be getting better at shutting all that off when I need to.  Famous last words.  I also have a half-time post at a university where I teach creative writing and new media – I mostly teach online, so that’s another time management challenge.

My main advice for would-be writers is:  find a good story and stick with it and remember that, with writing fiction, speed is not a virtue.

The Mistress of Nothing is published by Serpent’s Tail and is out now. For more information, see katepullinger.com