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Where few men dare to tread
The phenomenal and deserved worldwide success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy -- the second book, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” was published in the U.S. earlier this week -- has people paying close attention not only to the book's heroine, Lisbeth Salander, but to girls and women just like her.
In other words, females who veer 180 degrees from playing second banana to men and are strong, capable decision-makers. They don't let the baggage of brutal childhoods and emotional damage keep them from their quests, and, as Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller wrote in a column earlier this month, "They're not meek. They're not mild. They do as they please and they don't play well with others. They're misfits with moxie." And they don't have to apologize for their behavior -- not much, anyway.
Larsson's work dominates many countries' bestseller lists and reaches millions of readers, but here's a secret that the smaller, more contained crime fiction world has known for years: damaged, kick-butt women have populated the pages of mysteries and thrillers long before Stieg Larsson dreamed up his hacker heroine, and he knew it. To read about Salander is also to read about Mallory, the charming, quasi-sociopathic NYPD detective whose unorthodox methods captured readers' hearts and minds in 1994's "Mallory's Oracle" (Jove: 336 pp., $7.99 paper) and subsequent installments, or Denise Mina's wonderfully complex protagonists, most recently the plucky Glaswegian journalist Paddy Meehan in the trilogy beginning with the 2005 novel "Field of Blood" (Little, Brown: 456 pp., $7.50 paper).
Salander's motivations, relayed from a third-person vantage point, can at times be inscrutable; the opposite occurs in Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" and in her most recent novel, "Dark Places" (Shaye Areheart Books: 350 pp., $24). Flynn's heroines dare the reader to contend with their damaged qualities with opening lines like "I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it." But few writers top Mo Hayder in doling out emotional baggage: One need only read her 2007 novel "The Devil of Nanking," which juxtaposes its hostess-protagonist's contemporary adventures in Japan with her obsession with the Nanking massacre (in all its horrible anti-glory) to understand Hayder's ability to go where few men dare to tread.
Karin Slaughter, however, comes awfully close, the adverb signifying the extreme violence that permeates her thrillers and the criticism leveled at her and other female crime writers for daring to venture into queasy territory. To my mind, as uncomfortable as some of her novels are to read, Slaughter maintains the balance between violent acts and character development, and the extremity of the violence comes about because her characters feel and understand their impact on families, on communities and on the small Georgia enclave known as Grant County.
Slaughter's also not afraid to shake up her series' ingredients, which is why "Undone" (Delacorte: 438 pp., $26) transplants Sara Linton, Grant County's longtime coroner and pediatrician, back to the big city of Atlanta -- to Emory Hospital, no less, where she was a medical resident and where she became intimately acquainted with the ramifications of violence against women. But now working in the emergency room is a numbing refuge from the loss of her husband Jeffrey, Grant County's police chief, who was murdered in a still-unsolved bombing three and a half years earlier. That loss still rules Sara's life, until Atlanta detectives Faith Mitchell and Will Trent -- introduced in "Triptych" and "Fractured," respectively -- crash into Sara's world thanks to the ER arrival of a young woman broken in body, but not in spirit, that spins out a complicated spider web of secrets and tangles.
Linton, who at times came off in earlier series installments as too self-contained in the face of "beautiful women [who] tended to pay a heavier price where homicide was concerned,", shines in "Undone" as a woman still gripped by loss and loneliness yet able to conduct her job capably and professionally. But this reader, at least, still misses Lena Adams, Slaughter's most complex, damaged heroine of all, presumably still in Grant County with festering wounds that may yet heal in the future.
We know from the very first sentence that Alexandra "Cat" Rucker, the protagonist of Teri Coyne's unsettling debut novel "The Last Bridge" (Ballantine: 228 pp., $22), has enough emotional damage to last several times: "Two days after my father suffered a massive stroke, my mother shot herself in the head." But what shocks Cat is the means, not the end: "For someone who had endured years of torture at my father's hand, I thought she would choose a more quiet way of leaving." And since it had been 10 years since she had seen her mother -- or any of her family, after a hasty exit in favor of a New York life that "had become one long drink service" whose ramifications will be sorted out in unflinching fashion over the course of the novel -- Cat wonders if her mother "saw something. That she felt something. And that it felt like freedom. And then, if I could, I would ask her what that felt like."
Instead Cat discovers her mother's cryptic note ("He isn't who you think he is") and commences a journey back through the wreckage that was her early childhood, re-establishing frayed connections with the siblings left behind, as well as the fiery feelings still unresolved between her and Addison, the son of her parents' oldest friend. Flashbacks illuminate the forces that worked to destroy Cat's life then and still threaten her now, and her voice -- blackened with edginess but laced with enough humor to comment on her hometown town's tradition of "a Bundt cake for a death, a blanket for a birth, a casserole for a heart attack" -- keeps her steady on the road to further revelations of how strong those forces remain, and what strength she'll need to overcome them.
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.