This is a world in which police are heroes and brutality is always a justified option. There are some exceptions, however. Since the Cold War, spy thriller author John Le Carre has produced increasingly political novels that spotlight corporate hegemony and U.S. imperialism (especially The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, and Absolute Friends).
Le Carre's novels are not to everyone's taste. They are subtle and tend to provide little of the pay-off we have come to expect from the genre. Instead of an Agatha Christie reveal scene or an explosive climax, Le Carre forces us to fill in the blanks ourselves, piecing the narrative together from the events he discloses. This sort of writing is almost anachronistic in an era of tell, don't show.
For those who want a little politics with their mystery in a manner more in keeping with the times, there is the now-deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.
The three novels in the series tell the story of Lisbeth Salander -- a brilliant, tough young woman who seems to have a high fuctioning sort of Autism Spectrum Disorder (possibly Aspergers) and disgraced yet tenacious journalist Miikael Blomkvist. The Millennium books are the first mysteries I have read that seem to consider corporate scandal to be as intriguing as murder. (The first book uses such an event as a sort of frame for the rest of the narrative. Just when it seems the book is complete, we are confronted with another hundred pages concluding the corporate plot.) This feels ambitious, but admirable all the same.
If one of Larsson's arch villains is corporate greed, the other is patriarchy. Throughout his trilogy, he takes aim at the preponderance of violence against women in Swedish society. Larsson makes this case through scenes of horrendous sexual violence, and incredibly, even more heavy-handedly through statistics related to violence against women that begin his chapters. This sort of denotation is not uncharacteristic of Larsson's work. His writing style is more Dan Brown than John Le Carre, although I fear in saying this that I do him a disservice, not least because I have only read Larsson in translation.
The stylistic shortcomings of the Millennium Trilogy make it an ideal candidate for the big screen and are the reason I was excited to see the original Swedish films, the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo directed by Niels Arden Oplev, and the latter two, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, directed by Daniel Alfredson. They did not disappoint.
The casting is exceptional. Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) looks startlingly average (especially to someone like me, who is accustomed to Hollywood films, in which all leads appear as slightly different, mostly dull takes on perfection). Salander (Noomi Rapace) is Hollywood beautiful (in my opinion), but nonetheless manages to embody the role exceptionally well. Like the character in the books, Rapace betrays no emotion in the face of the worst horrors. This is the quirk of her character that makes her so engaging and so frightening to her foes.
During the recent holidays, I went to see the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. As I'm sure you can at this point surmise, I was not optimistic having already experienced the successful realization of this story on the screen; there was little upside here. Unwittingly, I chose to see director David Fincher's take on Larsson's work in the appropriate setting: at the Yorkdale Shopping Mall in Toronto. Just as my cozy living room served as the ideal place for the quaint Swedish-ness of the original, the giant screen and sound, and the pervasive consumption of the mall environment were the suitable home for Hollywood's take on Larsson.
Fincher's film superficially manages to capture the style of Larsson without corralling the substance. That is, the American film has all of the hammer-you-over-the-head obviousness of the books, without the charming and ubiquitous averageness (so central to the politics) of the original.
This is apparent from the opening credit sequence, a cross between a Nine Inch Nails video (the music for the film was written by front man Trent Reznor) and a James Bond intro. (Just take a look. The sequence is available on YouTube and I've embedded it below).
No doubt this nearly three minute sequence satisfies Fincher's flair for the self-indulgent. (Look at me, true heir to the Bond legacy!) It also betrays his lack of respect for Larsson. (Can you imagine the Swede tolerating Bond's rampant misogyny?) Indeed, it is an example of how this film simply misses the point.
The most loathsome villain in the book is Salander's new guardian (she has been placed under the guardianship of the state for various complicated reasons that play out over the course of the series) Bjurman, a man who ultimately subjects her to one of the more disturbing rape scenes to appear in popular culture. In both the original book and film, Bjurman is an average-build Swedish man. Fincher is evidently not satisfied with this: he transforms the lawyer (Yorick van Wageningen) into someone who is noticeably overweight and then gives us lingering shots of his glistening bare stomach. That is a man we can truly despise. This is both an insult to the viewer's intelligence and just the latest assault in the Hollywood war against 'fat' people, seemingly one of the last "legitimate" frontiers for hate-representation in American society.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the American film is the casting of Craig. I expected to see the muscles-rippling Bond star and was struck by how thin, haggard, and normal he looked. He manages to adroitly carry the film. The part of Salander, on the other hand, goes to actress Rooney Mara, who seems to be getting plenty of acclaim for her performance.
While she certainly looks the part (although I can't help feeling even her appearance is just-off after watching Rapace so thoroughly realize the role), her performance does not capture the character she is playing. No doubt this is largely due to the frustrating choices of Fincher, but Mara makes Salander too relateable. She gives us small but eminently perceptible emotional responses to the traumas she experiences. This is believable, but it is not the Salander that Larsson conceived. And this matters because, as mentioned above, it is her inhuman-seeming detachment that gives Salander an aura of near invincibility. Bizarrely, though many have liked Mara's performance, it is less plausible precisely because it is more realistic. I can't believe that a 'normal' person would act as she does; it is her exceptionality that makes her real.