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It’s a Mystery: Imaginative Eyes

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 2008

A Most Wanted Man

By John Le Carré
Scribner, 2008

The first of an award-winning trilogy (the Millenium trilogy) by muckraking Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, here, indeed, is a dazzling debut. A European bestseller that is now a US literary sensation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a multilayered thriller that is as original as it is complex.

It is the story of Mikail Blomkvist, a crusading reporter who has been convicted of libel for his expose of a very shady, very powerful financier Wennerstrom. While awaiting his sentence, he is summoned by another Swedish financier, an arch rival of Wennerstrom, octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger, to the family’s island compound in the north of Sweden. Vanger wants Blomkvist to solve a 40-year-old crime, the disappearance of his teenage niece, Harriet. The trail, whose many paths have been explored ad infinitum, is colder than a dead Swedish mackerel. But the old man has a very tempting proposition for Blomkvist. Reopen the case with fresh eyes, work on it for a year, and new evidence or none Vanger will deliver the goods on Wennerstrom that will help Blomkvist clear his own name.

Filled with misgivings, but with a prison sentence hanging over his disgraced head, Blomkvist accepts the job. He moves to the island which is frigid, remote, and filled with Vanger family members, “loyal” Vanger employees, and even more “loyal” family servants. He soon finds himself trying to unlock the tawdry multigenerational secrets hidden in this hideously dysfunctional family’s many closets. His unlikely partner in wading through this rich old megalomaniac’s morass is Lisbeth Salander.

She’s the girl with the dragon tattoo, among others, works at Milton Security, one of Sweden’s most competent and trusted security firms. Her insider’s status gains her involvement in Blomkvist’s investigations by wholly unorthodox means. She’s a world class hacker without a krona to her name yet she owns the Roll’s Royce of computers. She’s a ward of the state who happens to be one thousand steps ahead of all the bureaucrats trying to take charge of her life. Salander is a pierced, anorexic punk with Attitude big time. And before he knows what’s hit him, she becomes indispensable to Blomkvist. Those of us mesmerized by her every move completely understand why. Here’s the view of Dragan Armansky, her boss at Milton:

He glanced suspiciously at his colleague Lisbeth Salander, who was thirty-two years his junior. He thought for the thousandth time that nobody seemed more out of place in a prestigious security firm than she did. His mistrust was both wise and irrational…. Her reports were in a class by themselves. Armansky was convinced that she possessed a unique gift. Anybody could find out credit information or run a check with police records. But Salander had imagination, and she always came back with something different from what he expected. How she did it, he had never understood. Sometimes he thought that her ability to gather information was sheer magic. She knew the bureaucratic archives inside out. Above all, she had the ability to get under the skin of the person she was investigating. If there was any dirt to be dug up, she would home in on it like a cruise missile. Somehow she always had this gift.

The action-filled finale comes after the duo uncovers a vault of horrors worthy of Poe. At the same time, Larsson skillfully bares Sweden’s dirty not-so-little secrets (as suggested by the original title, Men Who Hate Women). Underscoring this leitmotif of women-hating men Larsson heads each section with a variation of the quote: “Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.” And that is the underbelly of this remarkable thriller that offers thoroughly compelling chunks of investigative journalism, high tech sleuthing, psychosexual drama, and a completely unpredictable love story.

The first US appearance of another Swedish crime writer, as fans of Henning Mankell will testify, should be cause for much rejoicing. Alas, shortly after handing in his three manuscripts in 2004, Larsson died. Larsson was the editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to supporting democracy and free speech and halting the resurgence of right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism in Sweden. And, because he spent his life on these causes, putting up with hate mail and death threats, it has been suggested that there was something nefarious about his death. His closest confidants suggest that nothing could be farther from the truth and that he died of a massive heart attack.

Meanwhile, the charismatic Lisbeth Salander’s legion of new fans have two more novels to look forward to. Knopf plans to bring out the second one in 2009. Larsson’s legacy is a compelling one.

John Le Carré is without question the Grand Master of the Western spook world. He calls it “the secret world”. He began to write while working for British intelligence, thus immediately armed with the kind of “inside out thinking” shared by all the networks of spies he depicts so splendidly time and again. With A Most Wanted Man, his twenty-first novel, Le Carré is at the top of his form.

The setting is Hamburg, where two Turkish Muslims, Melik Oktay and his mother Leyla, take in a shabby, malnourished man/boy who resembles nothing so much as a street urchin, and calls himself Issa. The sanctuary the Oktays offer sets off a chain of events that implicates intelligence agencies from three countries who converge in Hamburg. It is as Le Carré tells us a most apt setting for this quintessential spy story. “Nobody was likely to forget, be he Muslim, police spy or both, that the city-state of Hamburg had been unwitting host to three of the 9/11 hijackers, not to mention their fellow cell-members and plotters; or that Mohammed Atta, who steered the first plane into the Twin Towers, had worshiped his wrathful god in a humble Hamburg mosque.”

Issa, who claims to be a Muslim medical student and spouts constantly “God is good, Allah is good” is, in fact, an immigrant from Chechnya, a wanted terrorist, and the son of Vladimir Karpov, a Red Army colonel with considerable assets. Vladimir is

cunning as they come, venal to his boots, but with alpha-plus access to military secrets…. He was running a Red Army mafia five years before anyone outside of Russia knew they had mafias: blood, oil, diamonds, heroin out of Afghanistan by way of Red air-force cargo planes. When his unit was demobilized, Vladimir had his boys put on Armani suits but keep their guns.

The Armani clad, gun-toting Vladimir places his assets in a Hamburg bank, Brue Freres, whose sixty-year-old scion Tommy Brue knows him as his father’s client: Grigori, Borisovich Karpov, millionaire. When Issa’s attorney, Annabel seeks to claim these assets on Issa’s behalf, Annabel and Tommy become “partners” to broker a deal that will save the immigrant. As portrayed by Le Carré, they are a superbly rendered, incongruous pair. Annabel, delicately beautiful, whose day job is at Sanctuary North, an organization “dedicated to fighting the good fight for people whom the accidents of life had earmarked for the scrap heap.” Tommy, deceptively prim, a banker “who has never believed in lifting stones unnecessarily, least of all when he had a shrewd idea of what he might find underneath.”

Hard on their heels, in various guises, are the major secret service agencies, rife with rivalry, who want Issa for their own vainglorious ends. The key agency to penetrate Issa’s presence in Hamburg is an elite group of sixteen known as the Unit. Newly formed and ironically housed in a former SS riding stables, its overseer, as it were, is Gunther Bachmann without whose “imaginative—some said overimaginative—eye” the surreptitious arrival of the man who called himself Issa might never have been spotted. Gunther Bachmann, so-called polyglot offspring, who could blandish charm or intimidate, “for whom espionage was ever the only possible calling.”

And when the fledgling team is assembled for the first time in the stables, Bachmann takes it on himself to explain to his newly mustered motley crew “just what the hell it was they had been put on earth to do.” In what comes to be known as “Bachmann’s cantata,” it is part idiosyncratic history lesson and part call to battle:

He was chafing against the dismal failure of Western intelligence services—and the German service most of all—to recruit a single live source against the Islamist target…. You think on 9/12, our fine foreign intelligence service, fired by a global vision of the terror threat, put on their kaffiyehs and went down to the [far flung] souks and bought themselves a little retail information about where and when the next bomb would go off and who would be pushing the button? …With a few noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now.

And then he goes to the heart of it:

The sources that we newly assembled pariahs here in Hamburg will be looking for have to be conjured into life.” They don’t k now they exist till we tell them. They won’t come to us. We find them. We stay small…we do detail, not grand vision…. We work the people nobody else reaches. The baggy little guys from the mosques who speak three words of German. We befriend them and befriend their friends. We watch for the quiet incomer, the invisible nomad on his way to somewhere who is passed from house to house and mosque to mosque.

As it almost always is in Le Carré country, we watch with mounting tension as individual lives get trampled in the name of patriotism. Beware of all patriots, Le Carré tells us in the end. For when this end comes it is with a whimper not a bang and all we can do is mourn yet another untimely demise of honor. It is not as if we don’t see it coming. Le Carré plays fair with us. But, as he recently said in an article in The New Yorker, “The trouble is that the reader, like the general public to which he belongs, and in spite of all the evidence telling him that he shouldn’t, wants to believe in his spies: which come to think of it, is how we went to war in Iraq.”

From the beginning, the body of Le Carré’s spy fiction has been terse, chilling, and powerful stories of multiple deception and betrayal. They have been dedicated to exploring the rhetoric and ethics of the Cold War and beyond. They do so with an eloquence, displayed once again, that is unparalleled.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.