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Flash Fiction

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at his blog terribleminds: create a compelling tale featuring an unlikable protagonist. This one really got me thinking.

Draft Dodgers

“Shut that fuckin’ kid up!”

I don’t need to look behind me to see their reaction: the hard-faced kid will be glaring daggers at me while trying to console Kara, whose expression will mirror the glassy-eyed astonishment of the child in her arms. They still don’t get it yet— the kid comes closest, but it’s all tangled up with this alpha-male protectiveness of the young mother that going’s to get him killed.

You too, if you don’t do something about it.

The kid gawks at me with its astonishingly bright blue eyes— almost unheard of these days— and then shrieks with renewed vigor. It’s a hateful sound that rebounds off the alley a half-dozen times before shooting into the street That seems to shake the young woman out of her stupor, and she turns her attention to shushing the baby, cooing over it, her brown hair astray and eyes wild and panicked. The kid steps forward and seizes my arm with a hand, his voice a fierce whisper. I can smell garlic on his breath and something else, something familiar…chewing tobacco?

“You’re scaring her, Beatty.”

I take a moment to answer, considering the strength in his fingers, and hate myself for doing so. “Should be scared, kid. You know the punishment for draft dodgers? Forced labor. Me, they’ll send to the factories, to work sixteen hour days greasing machine parts and doing repairs for Uncle Sam. You and Kara will be sent over to the front lines to serve your tour until you learn to love it or a sniper bullet puts an end to it. The kid’ll get sent to an orphanage and live for fifteen uneventful years before being drafted. An’ no one will shed one stinkin’ tear.”

“That might be true, but you’re not—”

An engine snarls to life, and we both freeze for an instant. Then I force him backwards, surprise tipping the scales in my favor, and force him back behind the dumpster just as the Hummer trundles by, ponderously slow and loaded to bear with GI’s. The four of us seem to forget how to breathe as a beam of light cuts down the dingy alleyway. I can feel the muscles in my left thigh tighten up and begin that slow throb of pain that usually prompts the shot of whiskey— even after they got the shrapnel out, some wounds keep on giving. Then the flashlight flicks off and the Hummer rolls on.

The kid climbs to his feet and brushes himself off. He doesn’t bother to offer a hand to help me up, and I wouldn’t have taken it. Nothing’s changed between us. Kara doesn’t budge from his squat on the ground. Tears have begun to leak from her eyes as she looks between us.

“Can we really do this? I mean…” A huge sniff as she gathers herself. She hates letting us see her cry almost as much as the act itself, I sense, and my respect for her rises a little. “There are soldiers everywhere!”

“I only saw a couple at the station,” the kid says.

“Count on at least two at the ticket booth,” I say in between massaging my thigh. It’s too late though; I can tell it’s going to be a real rager. “There’ll be more at the turnstiles, checking ID’s for passengers heading outta town.”

“That’s another thing. Where are we going to go?” Kara asks. Her baby gawps up at her, his face beginning to scrunch up as if he smells something awful.

There’s no room for ‘we’, you know that.

“I hear there’s less military presence in the west, near the casinos. So long as you’re spending money, they could care less.” The kid steps past me, his leather jacket brushing against my side, and I sense my moment. The kid’s more concerned with scanning the train station, but I doubt the situation’s changed. Age and cynicism tend to come hand in hand.

“What do you think, Warren?” Kara’s eyes turn to me, and I am reminded again of my mother. She was the only one who called me Warren. She’s been buried for fifteen years, and her eyes were dead long before that, but every now and again…

“You gotta leave the babe. You can make it through their checkpoint— they may not have noticed our absence yet, but a baby raises too many questions. They’ll remember a kid, ‘specially one with blue eyes. Drop him on a stoop and go.”

“I can’t do that,” Kara says with a shake of her head.

“It’s all or nothing.” The kid says, but there’s a brief moment of hesitation, and when his eyes evade mine, I know he knows that I’m right. He knows, but he still won’t do it.

If this was an Oldworld story like the ones I used to read as a kid, there’s no doubt in my mind that the kid would be the hero here, with Kara as his romantic interest. There’s no room for veterans grown old before their time in picture books. But the heroes have moved on in today’s world. Now we just have survivors.

I sigh, roll my shoulders, grit my teeth like a man taking on a burden. The decision isn’t made so much as it is made for me. They took it out of my hands. “Alright then, all for one. This is what we’ll do. Gimme ten minutes. I’ll go ahead and try to make a distraction so you can slip through. We can meet in Nevada.”

The kid’s eyes narrow, and I expect him to refuse, to see through me. But Kara, trusting Kara, speaks up first.

“Thank you, Warren.”

This time, I’m the one who has to avoid eye contact. After all, how long will they wait for me? How long until the kid checks his pockets, notices the missing ID?

How long until the military finds them?

Flash Fiction

I decided to participate in a flash fiction challenge put forth by Chuck Wendig at his blog terribleminds. The challenge was to write a 1000 word piece of flash fiction in the present tense. Here’s my effort.

Just A Moment

I like to people-watch.

The company gives us an hour to take for lunch. Unpaid, so there’s no real benefit to working straight through and eating at your desk. People do, of course, because they feel that it’s expected of them. I was right there with them, once, but nowadays, I’m regular as clockwork: you’ll find me from 1:00 to 2:00 at Finn’s, this little family-owned sandwich shop a couple of blocks away.

Finn’s is a nice spot to people-watch. Decent food, always a clean spot by the window, not too cold, not too hot. Most folks order to-go, and are in and out in ten minutes flat. Life’s too short for that. I take my time with my sandwich— roast beef, cheese, bacon bits, all washed down with bottled water— and entertain myself with watching the people pass by two feet away, in their business casual combos of suit-tie-and-slacks. It is a slow day for a Friday, though: nothing more entertaining than the occasional stumble over a rogue crack in the sidewalk that is older than God.

Finn’s doesn’t get too many walk-ins. There’s a young guy at the table across from me sipping a Coke and looking rather anxious, a group of construction workers shooting the shit at the counter and me. Then the bell hanging over the front door tinkles, and this girl walks in, bringing in a chilly gust of the October weather with her. She’s pretty in a classical way; green eyes framed by a pair of thin frames, short brown hair, dressed in a business casual blouse-slacks combination that’s the standard for Hoboken.

The guy across from me waves her over, and I’m struck by how different they seem to be. He’s dressed like a college student with a free period— MSU sweatshirt and cargo pants— while she might be off on her lunch break. All at once, I know I’ve got a real show here. Something’s going to happen, and it’s going to be worth watching.

I shift a little in my own seat as the girl makes her way over to his table and sits down. They could be a couple if it were not for the way her hands seem to stop short of his on the table between them. They’re only a few inches away, but it might as well be miles.

“What’s up, Becca?” MSU’s eyes make a cursory pass over the restaurant, looking at everything and seeing nothing. He runs a hand through his crop of shiny blond spines, and for a second, I can see his fingers tremble ever so slightly. Then they’re back on the table.

“Thank you for meeting me here, Mark,” Becca says, and I don’t need to see Mark’s face to know that there’s a frown forming there. “I wasn’t going to have the time to see you later today, and this seemed like the most convenient time to talk to you.”

Oh, Jesus Christ.

“Sure, sure.” Mark says, and now his fingers start to jitter and bounce, drumming out a barely audible beat of anxiety. He seems to be on the verge of saying more, but then (wisely) closes his mouth.

“I just don’t think—” There is a pause, and now it is Becca’s turn to survey her surroundings for eavesdroppers. I take another bite out of my sandwich as her gaze passes over me, and pass unnoticed for a while longer. “I don’t think that it’s in our best interests to see each other anymore.”

Mark is silent. My chewing slows to a halt.

“I just think that we’ve been going in two different directions for a while now, and that it would be kindest for this to end before we begin to resent each other.”

“What do you mean, two different directions?” The anxiety is gone from Mark’s voice. Raw, incredulous anger replaces it. “Just what the hell are you trying to say?!”

“Well, come on, Mark,” Becca says dubiously, her voice rising a bit higher in response to his own. “Do I really need to spell it out? I know what I want to do with my life. Can you really say the same thing? You’re not…that’s not…”

Mark’s throat works. “You think you’re so high and mighty— all those internships, and you’re still just a secretary, fresh out of school. Don’t kid yourself!”

Rosebuds bloom in Becca’s cheeks. “At least I’m out of school. How long are you going to keep smoking yourself stupid with those asshole friends of yours?”

I realize that I was only half right. This is a not just a show, it is a spectacle: a car crash in slow motion, zoomed in and three-dimensional. Suddenly, I want no part in it, but it is too late for that: it is no longer their moment. In a few seconds, it will not even be their moment, not from the way the construction crew glances in our direction. Don’t they deserve that much?

My bottled water tumbles to the floor in the beat before their next volley, and the puddle of water spreads swiftly, licks at their feet.

“My bad, my bad, sorry!” I apologize through my best shiteating grin. I swipe a few napkins, drop to the floor and mop hastily at the floor, but it’s a futile effort: the napkins are too thin and grow soggy in my hand immediately. Mark gawks at me, uncomprehending, but Becca eyes me like dirt on the bottom of her shoe. She pushes herself back from the table with an audible squeak. The moment passes.

“Good-bye, Mark.”

She steps over the puddle and favors me with one more disdainful glance. Then there is the tinkle of the doorbell and she is gone. Mark makes no move to follow her; perhaps he is still in shock.

After a moment, he stoops to help me clean up. Neither of us make eye contact. I don’t bother to say thanks, and neither does he. But we know.

TGwtDT:Chapter Four

Chapter Four

Mikael is cleaning out his office when he receives a call from  a lawyer: Dirch Frode. Frode reveals that his client—Heinrik Vanger— wishes to meet with him. Blomkvist starts at the news. Vanger is an old-school industry mogul who’s been out of the game for twenty years or so, head of the once thriving Vanger companies, which dealt in textiles, mines, steel, etc. It could also be said that he’s one of the few respectable businessmen in Mikael’s jaded eyes because he was an honorable, no-nonsense man who played by the rules. Frode is Vanger’s lawyer and friend, and informs Mikael that Vanger wishes to offer him a job. Not in the habit of taking jobs from strangers over the phone, Blomkvist offers to call Frode back after thinking the matter over.

Frode, we already know, of course, also offered Salander a job investigating the Wennerstrom case. Can we see our two protagonists joining forces in the near future with the trial to bring them together? I certainly hope so. Salander doesn’t seem as prone to flashback-syndrome.

In fact, while Mikael is looking up info on Frode, Heinrik and Martin Vanger, the present CEO of Vanger Industries, Salander spends her Christmas with her forty-six year old mother in a nursing home, who is suffering from some form of mental illness. Exactly what kind of illness isn’t hinted. There’s a lot that isn’t explained as it is elsewhere, and the change is noticeably refreshing.

“Her mother gave up the struggle and looked helplessly at the package. It was not one of her better days. Salander pushed across the scissors that had been in plain sight on the table and her mother suddenly seemed to wake up.

‘You must think I’m stupid.’

‘No, Mum. You’re not stupid. But life is unfair.’

‘Have you seen your sister?’

‘Not in a long time.’

‘She never comes.’

‘I know, Mum. She doesn’t see me either.’”

This is probably one of my favorite scenes from this chapter. It’s short and sweet, but in a book which already seems pretty loaded in the exposition department (approaching 100 pages and it’s not over yet) less is definitely more. Lisbeth’s mother thanks Lisbeth for the gifts, but mistakenly calls her by her sister’s name: Camilla. While Lisbeth is living in her mother’s old house and has taken over the payment, Camilla is elsewhere— perhaps living alone, or perhaps married with kids, but wherever she is, visiting her mother on Christmas eve is clearly not a priority there. But I want to know more, and that’s a good thing. Compared to the breakdown of Blomkvist’s family which we received via Lisbeth’s report, Camilla is someone I’d actually like to know about, at least in relation to Lisbeth.

Larsson’s writing makes me feel conflicted. With Lisbeth, there could not be more than sixty words written and I’m intrigued. Blomkvist hits me with walls of text and I want to put the book down. Is one just a better character than the other? Am I powering through the Kalle chunks to get to the Lisbeth bits?

We learn a lot through reading very little. Lisbeth has a sister, and they aren’t on good terms, presumably. Lisbeth’s father isn’t in the picture, but if her mother’s age is any indication, we might guess that he’s young and healthy— therefore, either he’s run off or divorced her mother when the signs of sickness started to show.

Compare to Blomkvist’s Christmas eve, where the more I read, the less I care.

“Father and daughter spent the time together in her room upstairs. Pernilla’s parents were divorced when she was five and she had had a new father since she was seven. Pernilla came to see him about once a month and had week-long holidays with him in Sandhamm. When they spent time together they usually got along well, but Blomkvist had let his daughter decide how often she wanted to see him, the more so after her mother remarried.”

Make me care, Larsson.

“She had followed the trial in the firm belief that things were just as her father said: he was innocent, but he could not prove it.”

Make me care, damn you! It’s Christmas, this is his daughter, you’re talking about family, Lisbeth and Mom was good, drop dat warm and fuzzy feeling!

“She told him about a sort-of boyfriend who was in another class, and she surprised him by saying that she had joined a church. Blomkvist refrained from comment.”

Goddamnit Larsson. Guess I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

Blomkvist calls Frode back and agrees to make with Heinrik, then immediately regrets it. Hedestad is described as small, cozy village covered in a fine layer of snow after the recent storm. In my head I’m envisioning Santa’s village crossed with a retirement home.

Blomkvist is introduced to Heinrik Vanger, who is kind of like a skinny Father Christmas with a mustache. He also couldn’t be any further from Blomkvist’s incoming poverty— he’s got housekeepers and caretakers and a house that’s nicer than yours. As it turns out, they’ve got something in common— Harriet Vanger, Heinrik’s granddaughter, used to babysit him when he was a child and Mikael’s father got a job as a workshop foreman due to Heinrik’s recommendation. All of this seems like rather superfluous information until Blomkvist makes a realization: Heinrik is a cunning mothafucka.

“Blomkvist had the feeling that every that every last thing that had happened since he arrived was staged: the introductory surprise that as a child he had met his host, the picture of his parents in the album, and the emphasis on the fact that his father and Vanger had been friends, along with the flattery that the old man knew who Mikael Blomkvist was and that he had been following his career for years from a distance… No doubt it had a core of truth, but it was also pretty elementary psychology.”

Heinrik is a player, and we don’t need Larsson repeating to us once or twice to figure it out. He’s got Blomkvist over the proverbial barrel— Kalle is unemployed, hurting on funds and disillusioned. He’s tried taking down the bad guy in the manner he’s most accustomed to— good old-fashioned journalism— and got punched square in the nose. The Wennerstrom trial is what he (and to some extent, the reader) are really interested in, and Vanger is acutely aware of that. But more on how he plucks that particular chord later.

Blomkvist wants to know why he was called down, and Vanger obliges: he wants the investigative reporter to write a book on the Vanger clan— “for the most part thieves, misers, bullies and incompetents.” So pretty much like any of its stuffed shirt counterparts here in America. Vanger ran the company for thirty-five years and had to put up with all manner of familial bullshit in the process. But that’s not what really gets his goat, kids.

Nope.

The motive this time is: REVEEEEENGEEE. Because of MUUUUURDDDERRRRR.

Before we can get down to the murder mystery, though, we need to learn about Vanger’s family. The book is prefaced by a rather extensive Vanger family tree which you will flip back to a maximum of three times for reference before declaring ‘Fuck it,’ and powering through Heinrik’s monologue alone.

For those without the books, you get the Cliffnotes version.

  • Richard Vanger is Heinrik’s oldest brother— the eldest, in fact. From the age of seventeen, he decided he liked what the Nazis were all about and went through extremist groups the way a garage rock band goes through band names. Eventually he died in battle and was considered a martyr for the Nazi cause.
  • Before he died, though, he met his eventual wife Margareta and had a son— Gottfried. Richie backpacked around Europe for a while, preaching his brand of Nazi craziness until he got into a huge fight with his father, who was never fond of the Nazi business from the start. Richard is cut off from the family and forced to work for a living.
  • Richie took up domestic abuse as a career: low pay, no benefits, set your own hours. He did this until his death. Gottfried was thirteen when Papa Vanger took him and his mother into his estate.
  • Richie was crazy, Gottfried is lazy. Heinrik tries to do the kid a favor by giving him a job, Gottfried consistently disappoints (‘Y’know my dad owns a dealership?!?). Eventually he marries Isabella Koenig, who is equally as lazy and preferred partying to parenting. They begat Harriet (the chick who babysat Blomkvist) and Martin (the current head of the Vanger company.)
  • Following in the steps of his father, Heinrik cuts off Isabella and Gottfried and takes in Martin and Harriet as his own. Gottfried becomes an alcoholic and drinks himself to death, Isabella has no fucks left to give.
  • “Martin was…to tell the truth, there was a time in his youth when I was afraid he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was weak and introverted and melancholy, but he could also be delightful and enthusiastic. He had some troubled years in his teens, but he straightened himself out when he started at the university.”
  • Harriet was different. “She was introverted— like her brother— and as a teenager she became wrapped up in religion, unlike anyone else in the family. But she had a clear talent and she was tremendously intelligent.” Heinrik is sure she will succeed him one day.
  • Then Harriet gets murdered, and the killer spends the next forty years trying to drive Heinrik insane!

PLOT used THICKEN!

Notes in the Margin

-So now we can guess (if you didn’t already) that Heinrik is our weeping old man in the prologue. Now we just need to find our retired cop.

-Salander’s appearance in this chapter doesn’t seem to serve any purpose beyond reminding us that she still exists, and that the book, is kinda named after her, y’know. We wait with bated breath.

-Wennerstrom’s trial and its importance feels like a bit of a red herring now. I mean, we can probably assume that solving this MURDERRR will take up a good chunk of the book— Harriet is the focus, not ‘strom. That’s just fine, but why did we take up so much time with the trial then?

TGwtDT: Chapter 3

Chapter Three

POV change!

Our chapter opens with our man Mike, arguing with Erika Berger— you know, the one mentioned a few sentences ago— in the office of the Millennium. Erika’s pissed that the only option that seems available to them is for Mikael to resign at the magazine in order to save their credibility. It’s the journalism equivalent of taking one for the team; Mikael accepts the blame for his story and seemingly foolish decisions in order to save the magazine’s reputation. Erika would rather stay on the offensive, and keep fighting Wennerstrom, trial or no trial. Blomkvist manages to dissuade her. Then they have pity-sex and Blomkvist reminisces about how they met.

“Blomkvist was sure that it was not the old-fashioned kind of love that leads to a shared home, a shared mortgage, Christmas trees, and children…Blomkvist had often wondered whether it were possible to be more possessed by desire for any other woman. The fact was that they functioned well together, and they had a connection as addictive as heroin.” Got some bad news for you, Kalle: that ain’t love. That’s just lust.

But kudos on keeping it interesting for twenty or so years. So much so that despite the fact that they both get married to other people (Blomkvist has a daughter, to boot) they kept hooking up.

In the midst of his brooding over the results of the case and gymnast-level sex with Erika, we learn a little bit more about Mikael, mostly that he takes being a financial reporter as SRZ BZNZ. “The job of the financial journalist was to examine the sharks who created interest crises and speculated away the savings of small investors, to scrutinize company boards with the same merciless zeal with which political reporters pursue the tiniest steps out of line of ministers and members of Parliament.” All joking aside, this excerpt sums up Mikael’s character pretty accurately. His work isn’t something he abuses for the occasional appearances on TV or the chance to rub shoulders with trust fund brats. He holds himself by a high standard and intends to make sure that the people with more power and money than himself do so as well. Wennerstrom abused the trust of his investors and made a killing for doing absolutely nothing, and even though the trial was doomed from the start, Blomkvist never regrets making the effort to stand up to him.

Erika shares these qualities— we know this because Larsson says so. More important than her attitude was her contacts: being part of the upper crust allowed her to use her influence to cobble together some seed money for the Millenium and make their voices heard. Lower-class morals backed by upper-class wealth, what a dream team.

The last member/third wheel of the Millenium administration is Christer Malm: exhibitionist gay celebrity graphic designer. When you just don’t have the time and energy to give your supporting character traits and flaws, toss as many labels as you can on them and hope for the best.

Blomkvist reads over the press release detailing his resignation as the magazine’s publisher on the Millenium’s website bitterly. Wennerstrom is a spiteful motha— even with the trial done and over with, he wants Blomkvist buried. Therefore, Mikael’s resignation may not only save the paper’s credibility but the paper itself, as Erika reports that one of their advertisers (one in which ‘strom has a sizable piece of stock) has declined ad space in their next issue.

Tough times ahead for the printed word.

Notes in the Margin

-Erika’s husband, Greger Beckman, is an artist that Mikael guesses is either too wrapped up in his creativity or in himself to be bothered by the fact that she sleeps with two men. She even divides up her vacation time so that she can spend time with her husband and Mikael. Beckman has gotta be fucking someone on the side. Artists are an odd bunch, but come on.

TGwtDT: Chapter 2

Chapter Two

Change of POV!

My problem with Larsson’s writing comes to the fore pretty much at once. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a bit of literary wisdom given to writers in terms of character development for their creations. In a nutshell, it means that when you’re describing a scene, a place, a character or an event to your audience, stay away from laying all the details out in black-and-white. Instead, paint a picture with your words— evoke images with your details and allow the reader to make inferences, draw their own conclusions and bring the story to life. If it’s done correctly, then your audience will remember your story fondly, long after it’s been set on the bookshelf. Done incorrectly, and, well…

We know all about the character before they’re allowed to say one word; before we have any reason to care to know about them.

Dragan Armansky is the first character we are introduced to in such a manner. Dragan’s a real Sensible Sam kind of character, with some pretty impressive accomplishments to his name: in fifteen years, he advances from junior associate of the (fictional) Milton Security to CEO and COO. Under his leadership, the company is soon respected internationally for being one of the best in the business for providing security solutions for their customers. Sales increase from forty million SEK to two billion.

We even learn what he looks like! “His father was an Armenian Jew from Belorussia. His mother was a Bosnian Muslim of Greek extraction.”

Kinda!

“His passport confirmed he was a Swedish citizen, and his passport photograph showed a squarish face, a strong jaw, five o’clock shadow, and graying temples. He was often referred to as ‘the Arab,’ although he did not have a drop of Arab blood.”

Well…

“He looked a little like the stereotypical local boss in an American gangster movie…”

Milton Security handles four kinds of employment: security consultations, countermeasures, personal protection and private investigations. The former three are stable, safe sources of revenue; it is the latter which keeps Dragan up at night. Let’s face it, being a P.I. sounds pretty awesome— at least, in theory. The reality, I expect, would be like working for TMZ, only with average people instead of celebrities for much less pay. But regular people or no, it also has the potential to drag a lot of skeletons out of the closet, which means scandal and bad publicity for Armansky. More often than not, Dragan refuses the really troublesome jobs to save M.S. the trouble. But when he does get a complicated case, he gives it to…

Lisbeth Salander. Our eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. The prologue lacked some punch, and the first chapter was a little (a lot) stuffy, but now Larsson can finally stop holding our hands and we can actually see some plot progression, some interaction between the characters, no more telling, finally some sho-

“In Armansky’s eyes, Salander was beyond doubt the most able investigator he had met in all his years in the business. During the four years she had worked for him she had never once fumbled a job or turned in a single report.”

…k. You’re just giving us some basic traits that you can expound on them later, in a natural and auth-

“On the contrary, 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.”

…She’s a hacker. She’s the best she is at what she does. Now, how abou-

“Somehow she always had this gift.”

Can we strictly call it characterization if it’s strictly our narrator/author listing traits by rote?

Ugh. That aside, Dragan and Lisbeth are set up as foils to each other. Dragan looks…like an Arab, but Lisbeth has this skinny punk rocker chick vibe going on (lol at Lisbeth being described as anorexic-but-not-really.) Lisbeth possesses an uncanny competence with a job that Dragan would rather avoid altogether. Dragan is content to take things at face value— at least at first— while Lisbeth’s work deals with ferreting out the details others would rather forget. They could have a pretty entertaining “Odd Couple” dynamic working here, if the author wished to explore it. I don’t really blame him, though. It’s an old concept. ‘One’s a tiger. The other’s a monkey. Together, they fight crime.’

Salander ends up working for Armansky in the first place thanks to a reference from a lawyer friend— Holger Palmgren. Let’s assume he’s important because we’re given his full name. At first, Salander is employed as a semi-secretary, and a shitty one at that. She’s cold, unresponsive to basic social interaction from her co-workers and— wait for it— a drop-out! Stay in school, kids.

When Dragan calls her in to give her the boot, though, Salander speaks up just fine. In fact, she starts trash-talking. The investigators at M.S. are worthless and Dragon-tat could outdo them with her hands tied behind her back. Dragan sez, ‘Prove it!’ Salander comes back with proof that the client beats his wife and snorts coke. Well damn.

Suitably impressed, Dragan takes her under his wing, teaching her what he knows, giving her computer courses, etc. It’s a nice gesture, but ultimately an empty one, as Lisbeth is already a computer wiz and a natural at private investigation despite being twenty-four and lacking basic social skills.

In spite of her standoffishness and his own misgivings, Dragan finds himself inexplicably drawn to Salander. “But the attraction, Armansky thought, was that Salander was a foreign creature to him. He might just as well have fallen in love with a painting of a nymph or a Greek amphora. Salander represented a life that was not real for him, that fascinated him because he could not share it— and in any case she forbade him from sharing it.” Genuinely interesting, though I doubt it will be picked up again. Sounds like Dragan’s having a mid-life crisis. Salander is semi-attracted to her boss as well, but draws the line precisely because he is her boss, never mind his age (thirty years her junior) or his wife and kids. She doesn’t need a father or a lover, but the two do agree to be friends.

Back to the present.

M.S. has a new client, attorney Birch Frode, who has requested information on the only other character of note so far: Mikael Blomkvist. With this development we can see the beginnings of the tenuous link between the two characters, which will undoubtedly pull them together. It also provides Larsson with the opportunity to drop even more backstory into play; but I’ll be more forgiving this go-around because at least it comes from Salander instead of our omniscient narrator.

Salander wrote a report on Blomkvist that is 193 pages long…then, she offers to streamline her findings for Frode. Again, I’ll give you the short and sweet version:

  • Blomkvist has a family, went to school, served briefly in the military, became a journalist and helped create the Millenium.
  • He is neither rich nor poor, but the trial combined with his jail time will likely clean him out.
  • He has written two books and pays special attention to corporate corruption, and had built up a reputation for his reliability up until the ‘strom trial. Salander takes the time to comment personally on this (which surprises Dragan, because Salander is usually a robot who shows no emotion in her reports) and states her belief that Blomkvist may have been set up, because his track record shows no history of writing a story that he cannot back up. Perhaps he was threatened or received false information?

Frode cuts her off. Is there any chance that she could sniff out any dishonesty about the Wennerstrom trial, given the opportunity? Armansky, understandably, gets antsy. The case has been closed, Wennerstrom is flush with lawyers and cash, and Salander possesses no subtlety. It’s a recipe for trouble and Armansky knows it.

“In the depths of his Croatian— or possibly Bosnian or Armenian— heart he had never been able to shed the conviction that Salander’s life was heading for disaster. She seemed the perfect victim for anyone who wished her ill, and he dreaded the morning he would be awakened by the news that someone had done her harm.”

Are Croatians more prone to intuition than Bosnians or Armenians? Casual racism, or a European expression? You decide.

In the end, Dragan reluctantly agrees but warns Frode that it’ll get expensive. Frode shrugs it off. 99 problems but a kronor ain’t one. He inquires if Blomkvist has any secrets worth knowing and Salander informs him that he’s quite the ladies’ man— the only constant woman in his life is one Erika Berger, editor-in-chief of Milennium and a married woman.

Mikael, you dog, you.

Notes in the Margin

-This should have been our first chapter. Salander’s report could have given us a more natural lens to bring the Wennerstrom/Blomkvist trial into focus, rather than through flashback after flashback. Our main character (or one of them, at least) is introduced, and we learn more about her through her work.

-Pippi Longstocking, who Dragan sometimes compares to Salander, is another creation of Astrid Lindgren.

-Dragan: “I like you a lot. But it’s not a physical thing.

Salander: “That’s good. Because it’ll never happen.”

I was reminded of Borat’s line: http://youtu.be/LK7LyxgrWS4

-You don’t call someone anorexic unless they’re actually anorexic.

TGwtDT: Chapter 1

Part I

Incentive

Chapter One

Change of POV!

Had any lingering questions about that old man from the prologue? Confused about abruptly tearful old folk and flowers? Well shove them queries right up your ass, because they sure as hell ain’t going to be answered in this chapter.

Instead, we meet ‘Carl’/’Kalle’ Mikael Blomkvist, who one might assume to be our protagonist were it not for his distinctive lack of dragon tats and tits. As Blomkvist is leaving a courthouse, he is approached by a mob of photographers and news reporters— all eager to hear his comments on the case which, as the narrative informs us in no uncertain terms, he has just lost. But Blomkvist takes the questions in stride, and it is through his interactions with the reporters, and the media covering this story, that we learn more about him. Sometimes this information is weaved pretty elegantly with the story, allowing the reader to pick up on Mikael’s characteristics like metaphorical golden apples along the road.

“He had no wish to discuss the verdict, but questions were unavoidable, and he— of all people— knew that they had to be asked and answered. This is how it is to be a criminal, he thought. On the other side of the microphone.

Ok, I thought to myself, he’s a reporter/journalist! The results of this case are big enough that Blomkvist would be present himself, if it wasn’t his own trial. Then the book drops the other shoe and hammers in any tentative assumptions you might have made through the use of meaty, soul-crushing flashbacks.

Wanna know why Mikael’s nickname is Carl/Kalle? Well, one time when he was twenty-three and just starting out as a journalist and staying at his girlfriend’s summer cabin at Katrineholm there was this gang of thieves who wore Donald Duck masks on their bank jobs and there were these Swedish guys living in another cabin who looked like the Donald Duck gang so Blomkvist called the cops and it turns out they were the Donald Duck gang and Kalle Blomkvist is a fictional boy detective created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren so it’s like a joke doyagetit.

And perhaps the most irritating thing about this particular flashback (2 left in this chapter, one short and one long, btw) is that the joke doesn’t quite translate well for us American folks. I needed to look up Astrid Lindgren before I got the reference. But that’s not something Larsson can really help, so ignore that.

There’s a lot of extraneous bits here, and I’m sure a lot of this will end up getting cut for the silver screen. Hopefully this is a good thing, because better that they trim the fat than end up changing something really vital, right? Blomkvist doesn’t volunteer much to the reporters, has a brief run-in with a rival reporter named Borg (one line of dialogue, a page worth from Larsson to let me know that they’re RIVALS) and heads to a café for lunch. A radio serves as our exposition vehicle: how badly did Blomkvist lose, and was it worth the embarrassment?

“Journalist Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine Millennium was sentenced this morning to 90 days in gaol for aggravated libel of industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. In an article this year that drew attention to the so-called Minos affair, Blomkvist claimed that Wennerstrom had used state funds intended for industrial investment in Poland for arms deals. Blomkvist was also sentenced to pay 150,000 SEK in damages. In a statement, Wennerstrom’s lawyer Bertil Camnermarker said that his client was satisfied with the judgment. It was an exceptionally outrageous case of libel, he said.”

What we have here is an outrageously good lawyer, or an outrageously large lie. Blomkvist is outrageously depressed, as one might guess— the cost of the trial and his fine are enough to mean serious trouble for the Millennium, which Blomkvist is part owner of, and wipe out his personal savings. But Blomkvist’s reputation has taken the biggest beating: the scandal would make other magazines leery to publish anything with his name attached to it. Wennerstrom thumbing his nose at him in court is just an added insult to injury.

In essence, life sucks for Kalle Blomkvist.

And that’s it! We could really end the chapter here if we wanted to, stop reading, or skip ahead, or whatever. We’re not going to be any introduced to any new characters (except the one, in a flashback) and we’re not moving forward with the plot. Instead, we’re taking a look into the past— how Blomkvist got into his present day mess. And that sounds interesting on paper, but when you read the story on paper, it’s not. It’s pretty goddamn dull, and it’s why I quit this book the first time, and the second.

The Cliffnotes version:

  • Mikael runs into an old friend from school, Robban, who’s in the banking business.
  • They discuss the concept of ethics, morality and corruption in the business world— “certain golden parachute agreements”— and Robban brings up Wennerstrom.
  • The Agency for Industrial Assistance (AIA) is created; essentially, they are a conglomeration of industry heavyweights and firms with the Swedish government’s backing, authorized to distribute taxpayer funds to regimes looking to restructure their economy in Europe. These loans were interest-free and intended to be repaid in a number of years
  • Small-time player ‘strom somehow weasels his way into the AIA in 1992. He outlines his plans and receives 60 million kronor to set up a ‘tin-can industry’ called Minos (which should sound familiar, because it is.) He invests 54 million into the company, but it still goes under due to German competition. ‘strom is responsible for paying the difference and sends the government a check— since the rest of the money was invested in the company, it couldn’t be helped…
  • …Except Robban thinks he’s full of shit. In his employment with Handelsbanken, he saw the reports on Minos and got the chance to investigate for himself a few years ago and learned from the locals that the Minos factory employed old woman and produced little more than cardboard boxes and paper bags. Total cost: under 2 million.
  • Ok, so they made off with 50+ million, but Wennerstrom was worth billions. Why take the risk at stealing such a paltry amount? “The interest alone on sixty million for three years, that’s quite a bit. Depending on how he invested the money, he might have doubled the AIA money, or maybe grown it ten times over.”

I don’t hate flashbacks. Used correctly, they can be pretty effective, especially in your mystery/thriller hybrids, as this book claims to be. However, this chapter was about eighty percent past tense. We’re thirty pages in. Are you hooked yet? I wasn’t the first time, or the second, but I powered through all the same.

Bottom line: I’m not used to relying on sheer willpower to bring me through the first chapter. We’re not getting off to a good start, book.

Notes in the Margin

-What does anyone look like? You drop politics and economics but can’t find the space to waste a paragraph on a basic description? Come on, book.

-“Industries got the money and used it to invest in joint ventures from which they later reaped vast profits. In other words, business as usual.” Jaded, Blomkvist?

-Obviously we are bringing up these towns, places and people because they will play an important role in the story not only later on, but throughout our tale. Of course, yes, this must be true.

TGwtDT: Prologue

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s been described as a ‘gripping, multi-national thriller’— so much so that they’re making a movie out of it featuring Daniel Craig (007 FUCK YEAR) and Rooney Mara (hauntingly ugly in the trailer, not so much IRL.)  Let’s read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I love to read, but I’ll admit—I’ve owned the book for the better part of a year, and never managed to make it past the brick wall of the opening chapters. But things will be different this time. I just know it.

Prologue

A Friday in November

Titles are for chumps. Real men write in real-time.

For kicks, I decided to envision how this would work on the big screen. The prologue— ideally, your opening scene, your first taste of what’s to come, the first handful of minutes before the title drop while the credits roll. With the right cold open, you can give the audience a taste of the conflict to come, that will drive our heroes doggedly forward in spite of the many obstacles and threats that will doubtless be thrown into their path. It can be edgy, it can be shocking, but most importantly it’s the hook for the audience, so it must be attention-grabbing, something that really pulls u—

“After putting down the telephone the eighty-two-year-old birthday boy sat for a long time looking at the pretty but meaningless flower whose name he did not yet know. Then he looked up at the wall above his desk. There hung forty-three pressed flowers in their frames. Four rows of ten, and one at the bottom with four. In the top row one was missing from the ninth slot. Desert Snow would be number forty-four.

Without warning he began to weep. He surprised himself with this sudden burst of emotion after forty years.”

Ok, ok, ok. We’re just laying down some groundwork first, right? Sowing the sweet seeds of foreshadowing so that we might harvest a thrilling emotional payback further on?

The first few paragraphs consist of a phone call between our octogenarian and a retired detective, Superintendent Morell.  We learn that our unnamed old man has been receiving flowers for forty-four years. All arrive the same way, ‘always pressed, mounted on watercolour paper in a simple frame measuring six inches by eleven inches.’ Naturally, there is no name and no evidence hinting at the identity of the sender, because then it wouldn’t be a mystery, right? We do learn, however, that these flowers have postmarks from London, Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid and Florida, so obviously the sender is well-traveled. Unfortunately, each year comes and goes with no epiphany or sudden insight into the identity of the sender, so the conversation is done more out of habit than anything else.

Larsson takes some time to describe the flower in length; perhaps a little too well. Seriously, we get the Latin name and classification of the flower, which precedes what Larsson assumes to be our next question— if this flower is so rare, why is it so difficult to put a name and face to the sender? Apparently, because no one registers flowers or those who cultivate them. Cool story, bro. Not quite invested enough to care properly, but I’ll make a note of this, since I’m sure it will be important later.

It is while looking upon the wall of flowers before his desk that our unnamed birthday boy breaks down into tears. Boom, end prologue, roll title credits, we’re on our way.

This is discouraging, but I persevere.

Good things come to those who wait.

It’ll get better.