by Gina Sestak
What's the book about? That is the question. We focus on honing our elevator pitch and struggle to cram a complex story into a simple one-page synopsis. The underlying wisdom seems to say, "Focus the story. Concentrate on one major plot-line, with one or two subplots. You don't have to include every possible crime known to humanity in one book."
Makes sense, right? Well, maybe.
I just finished reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.
On it's face, this book is just another twist on the traditional locked room mystery, although in this case it's a locked island. The amateur detective, disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is hired to find out what happened to a teenaged girl who had disappeared from a small island forty years earlier, at a time when the only bridge was blocked by a fiery truck accident.
Sounds simple enough, but over the course of 500-some pages, we encounter murder, kidnapping, rape, incest, animal mutilation, torture, arson, homicidal maniacs, burglary, theft, child abuse, attempted murder, abuse of power, serial killers, embezzlement, fraud in government contracts, drug dealing, arms dealing, computer hacking, ill-gotten gains in secret bank accounts, identity theft, drowning, intimidation, fraudulent passports, international intrigue, Nazi-collaborators, corrupt politicians, and financial market manipulation. It might be easier to list which crimes aren't in this book but I can't think of any. The story also includes sexual relationships, journalistic ethics, wrongful imprisonment, tattoos, allegations of libel, false information, travel, isolation, disguises, and coping with 35 degree below zero weather. Oh, and I should mention a multitude of characters, including Blumkvist, his lovers, his friends, his co-workers, his nemesis, his employer (an old man whose dozens of family members and employees also participate in the plot), and, of course, the title character, her boss, her mother, and her acquaintances.
Sounds like a mishmash, but somehow Larsson makes it work. There is no point at which the story gets too confusing to follow. So how did he do it?
Memorable characters seem to be one key. Another is Blumkvist's ability to explain complicated matters in an easy-to-follow manner. For example, here is Blumkvist's take on the economy. Although specific to Sweden, where the story is set, it could just as easily apply to the American economy and Wall Street:
"You have to distinguish between two things - the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. . . . The stock exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn't have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy."
See what I mean?
So, back to the topic. Have you ever had the urge to include every possible crime in a book? Did you squelch it? If not, how did it work out?