Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The girl without a dragon tattoo--Fifty Grand, by Adrian McKinty

I thought I'd take a moment to mention that today is the street date for the American paperback edition of Fifty Grand, Adrian McKinty's action packed thriller about a Cuban detective who sneaks up into El Norte to track down her father's killer.

In the book biz, 'the street date' is the date a book is officially available for sale, which is an attempt to level the playing field for all sellers. For some reason lately Tuesday seems to have been designated as the day for new books to come out, so today for example we have the latest Diana Gabaldon for sale in paper and a new Janet Evanovich in hardback. (I'm not providing links--you're not getting away that easily.) But other books are also released that may not have gotten such promotion as either of these fine women have, and that's a little bit of what I wanted to talk about here today.

If you're reading this blog, you have almost certainly at least heard of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and quite possibly already devoured the whole trilogy. I have nothing against the books or there subsequent success, though it is a bit sad that Larsson isn't around to reap the benefits of it. I read the first one, and liked it pretty well, though was bothered that the mystery didn't really hold up, and found the graphic violence against women pretty tough going at times. And, although I didn't mind these so much myself, I heard others complain that it suffers from too much information syndrome and even that both prose and plot were terrible.

The reason people seem to be willing to overlook so much of this, though, is that Larsson created a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine. Also, she had a pretty nifty tattoo.

So is it really all about the tattoo, then? Because Fifty Grand has a tough, smart, resilient and utterly determined heroine as well. Mercado is just as independent as Salander is, and actually a lot more out there on her own than even she knows. They both come from what you might call 'bad home lives', though Mercado's is more cultural than domestic. Both suffer the attempt of some appalling sexual violence and the threat of it pretty much all the time.

True, Detective Mercado doesn't have a photographic memory. She isn't a genius hacker, with a hidden underground friend who can provide her with the latest equipment. And she doesn't have a tattoo of  a dragon on her body--at least I don't recall one.

But the story she dwells in is a better story. It's more tightly written and plotted. The author has lyric gifts that Larsson did not have, at least in translation. Larsson's first tale, anyway, is obsessed with Sweden's hidden Nazi past, while McKinty's is interested in the power structures and abuses of the present. I haven't come across anyone who brings more sociological awareness than he does to his fiction, though I'm aware that this is a title Larsson himself might have relished.

Now, I may not be playing fair with Larsson's books, as I've only read the first. I'm really just saying that there is obviously a market for good books with kickass heroines and Fifty Grand fits the bill. So where was the marketing campaign for this one?

I wrote a somewhat less serious piece on Fifty Grand when it came out in hardback, but that's a year ago, and though I doubt this blog has more readers now than it did then, it might at least have a few different ones.

By the way, for the few people in the world who are less aware of sporting events than I am (and yes, I'm aware that not a lot of toddlers will be reading this blog), the featured picture is not of the author or in any other way related to the book. It's just a nod to McKinty's Northern Irish origins, which he shares with Graeme McDowell, winner of the 2010 U.S. Open. The guy with him is his dad.

On the other hand, his strategy for achieving his underdog win might well mirror Mercado's on her own high stakes quest:

"I controlled my emotions; I felt calm all week. Probably the worst I'd been was Thursday when I got a little frustrated out there. I hit a few bad shots and got frustrated... I promised myself I was going to be calm, and I was going to hang tough."

And they do.


  1. Thanks for writing about this! I will keep an eye out for this book, and it may be that I give it to my Cuban husband to read first!!

    I have read the first Larsson book so far, and appreciate all you say about it. There are clumsy moments in the prose, and I have wondered if that was related to delivering so much info, or to translation issues, or both, or indeed a clumsy prose style in the original. Even when it comes to info, I wonder about some things. In the second book there is a meeting about a contract that seems improbable to me, etc.

    And I'll have to mull over the violence against women issue. At least in these books, he is showing it in order to have men and women work together to do something about it. I don't like having to witness the violence, but I also don't want to close my eyes to it. Then it just goes on.

    Thanks again!

  2. Hey, thanks for stopping by, Kathleen!

    No, I don't think the violence towards women aspect is gratuitous in either book. But I do wonder about how it comes across, particularly in Larsson's because there is quite a lot of it. And to think I used to have such a benign picture of the Swedes! The Nazi past, which is not a spoiler, by the way, for anyone who might be browsing here is something I wonder about in terms of the general population.

    I would be really curious what your husband thinks of it. Cuba is one of those places about which there can be no neutral stance, I'd guess, but I will say that I know Adrian wrote this after spending a good amount of time there and not on a tourist junket either. Much of the book, though, takes place in a tourist resort in the Rockies, so it might be wise to quiz him on his opinions of movie stars as well...

  3. Now, that is one fine post title.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Thank you. Although, obviously I didn't pull it out of the clear blue sky.

  5. I'm happy to see any critic or reviewer discuss an author's prose style, as that amusing Slate piece did. Surprisingly few discussions do.

  6. The sad fact is that people will ignore a clunky prose style if they gain some other benefit from the story. For many Lisbeth Salander is that benefit. For me, not so much. Or I'd say that she doesn't strike me as so revelatory as she appears to many. There have been a couple of antecedents. La Femme Nikita is one, Carol O'Connell's Mallory is another. We even remembered Smilla's Sense of Snow at work today, although that one suffers from an unfortunate, fantastical ending. Right up to that point, though, Peter Hoeg had me.

  7. Smilla's Sense of Snow which, you may know, was translated by the wife of Stieg Larsson's English trnnslator. Like her husband, she disagreesd with post-translation changes to her work and had her name removed from one country's editions -- UK, I think.

    And don't forget to include Modesty Blaise among Lisbeth Salander's foremothers.

  8. No, I did not know of the translation connection.

    Modesty Blaise. I have only read of her, rather than the stories that she features in, but I'll take note of that.

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  10. There ought to be ample reading about Modesty Blaise available online given the recent death of her creator, Peter O'Donnell.

    I've written about the Modesty Blaise comic strips, movie, and first novel. I also put her forward as a possible Salander ancestor, only to discover that others had done so as well.

  11. Yes, I know you've mentioned her several times on your blog. I'd forgotten that she was a Salendar forerunner.