Okay, so the cheap Sunday matinees are attractive to people living on a pension. But why this movie, rather than the others in the multiplex? What was bringing a whole crowd of middle-aged to elderly people out to the cinema?
The answer? A tattooed, pierced, violent, half-crazy bisexual Swedish dwarf!
Lisbeth Salander. The disturbed, disturbing heroine of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. That's who the old folks are into!
These books are popular. A friend was on a commuter train from D.C. to New York and noted that everyone else in the car was reading a Stieg Larsson book. Larsson's the new John Grisham. Except that he's dead.
When I read the first of the books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I recognized Salander's special vibe right away--- in fact I checked the copyright, because Salander so reminded me of Sula in my own Praxis books. But no, it's unlikely that Larsson was able to read a first edition of The Praxis in 2003 in order to postumously publish his book, in Swedish, in 2004.
And it's not like the characters are identical. They're both self-exiled characters with abusive backgrounds, unusual math skills, and a willingness to exploit violence as a means of solving personal problems. Both end up unexpectedly rich. But Salander is a crusader: she uses violence only against evil people, most of whom have attacked her first. Sula is of a more pragmatic character: she'll kill people who get in her way, if she thinks she can get away with it.
And here's the secret to keeping a character like this fascinating: their superpowers don't help. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is shown to have a whole host of abilities--- she's a math genius, she's a brilliant hacker, she has a photographic memory--- but these abilities don't solve her problems or make her happy. The opposite, if anything. She's still alienated, she's still an exile, she's still alone.
Likewise Sula, for all her hypercompetence, never finds a place or time where she can be happy. ("Drive on," she said.)
In the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson made a big mistake. He fell in love with his character.
Now I think it's great when readers fall in love with fictional characters. I pat myself on the back for the number of readers who have fallen for Sula. But the problem with writers falling for their own character is that they start giving them too many expensive presents.
In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is no longer the bundle of fascinating contraditions we found in Dragon Tattoo. Instead, she's an omnicompetent superheroine. She not only rescues a woman from her murderous husband in the teeth of a raging hurricane, she also rescues her boyfriend from a collapsing building at more or less the same time. She beats up a couple of Hell's Angels and steals one of their motorbikes. (She's 4"8", by the way.) She's an expert at breaking into buildings and at spycraft. She takes a bullet to the brain and still manages to dig herself out of a shallow grave and then go after the bad guy with an axe.
She's no longer miserably unhappy, but instead reasonably content. While hardly a paragon of socialization, she does fairly well with people, having sex with the ones she likes, and avoiding those she doesn't (except when she goes for them with an axe).
She even solves Fermat's Last Theorem!
I wanted to give Stieg Larsson the benefit of the doubt, folks, but I really couldn't.
The third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, is about a governmental coverup of the events of the second book. In this one, Larsson made the mistake of telling the story in part from the point of view of the bad guys. This means (1) there's no mystery to ensnare the reader, and (2) once you encounter the senile, doddering, delusion villains, there's no suspense, because you know that Salander is going to make short work of them, at least once she recovers from being shot in the head.
That's the problem with giving your protagonist too many presents, you end up making them so mighty that the story no longer matters. Then it's just wish-fulfillment for the author and the audience both, with villains popping up only for the pleasure of watching the hero knock them down.
Still, if you're longing for Sula, you could do worse than to pick up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And if you're one of the tens of millions who, even though the author is dead, remain desperate for another Salander book, you might just want to pick up a copy of The Praxis.
Just a suggestion, mind.