Today’s news stories abound with accounts of men who do unspeakable things to women. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon, nor will such events go away. But whether it’s the sex charges leveled against Wikileaks front man Julian Assange, ABC News’ Lara Logan assaulted amidst Egyptian revolution or domestic abuse by the likes of actor Mel Gibson or music stars like Chris Brown, these stories produce an increased undercurrent in victim-blaming and justification — even as such reactions compete with a greater groundswell of outrage.
There are any number of reasons for what I’ve come to think of as post-misogyny, where the effects of several waves of feminism have, for good and ill, produced a generation of men unsure and possibly ill-equipped to deal with women who are their professional and romantic equals. Further discussion of the net effects is beyond the scope of the column, but even surface consideration of them bears thinking about in the context of the writer who currently rules the crime fiction roost and the books — excellent or otherwise — that have emerged in this bestselling author’s wake.
I speak, of course, of Stieg Larsson. No introductions are necessary for his now-iconic, soon-to-be-Fincherized-heroine Lisbeth Salander. As I’ve said elsewhere, the key to why the books have sold close to 50 million copies worldwide is that the hyperkinetic, Asperger-esque, quasi-sociopathic amalgam of archetypes that is Lisbeth leads the reader through teachable moment after teachable moment of violence against women until the culminating, and cathartic, trial sequence in “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” — and we, the readers, are redeemed by and are complicit with Lisbeth’s resultant triumph.
Naturally the “Millennium Trilogy’s” staggering success has instigated the expected avalanche of Scandinavian crime fiction stars in the making (Norway’s Jo Nesbo and his excellent Harry Hole procedurals, to my mind, stand the best chance at prolonged success) and heroines who wear both strength and flaws somewhat obviously on their sleeves. A.J. Palladino, the fictional alter ego of Erin Brockovich in her just-released debut novel “Rock Bottom” (Vanguard: 260 pp., $25.95, co-written with C.J. Lyons), may have messed up success, but back in her West Virginia stomping ground, she is capable enough to stop toxic dumping — tied to the coal-mining method known as mountaintop removal — in its tracks. Palladino must do battle with the evil male hierarchy at the murderous heart of this ecological problem. (A second novel in this series, “Hot Water,” is scheduled for the fall.)
What will appeal most to catharsis-seeking Salander fans are novels that tap into the deep well of righteous indignation that runs deep in Larsson’s novels. Cara Hoffman’s debut, “So Much Pretty,” (Simon & Schuster: 287 pp., $25) doesn’t appear to fit the bill, since its initial pages seem to present a missing girl aftermath narrative, one which figures in a host of recent literary-minded efforts by Stewart O’Nan, Hannah Pittard and Jennifer McMahon. But “So Much Pretty” is harder to pin down, trickier in its aims and delivers a skillful, psychologically acute tale of how violence affects a small town, its tentacles enmeshed so deeply into the collective fabric that it takes the thoughts and actions of one intelligent adolescent to shake things up and force everyone to examine their duplicitous complacency. To say more about Hoffman’s constantly surprising story is to reveal too much, but the payoff is more than worth the slow-building suspense.
With “The Informationist” (Crown: 310 pp., $23), Taylor Stevens tells us what we’re going to get, more or less, with the very first lines of her debut thriller: “This is where he would die.” West Africa is not for the easily cowed, not when danger leaps out and threatens to squash even the toughest sorts. But for Vanessa Michael Munroe, who vacillates between first and middle name as the need arises, the region’s never-ending spate of threats, while alarming and a reminder of a violence-filled past, won’t deter her from her mission: track down what (or who) is necessary and get paid handsomely for doing so.
Munroe’s currency is information, and the coolly calibrated way she handles rich clients desperate to find out what happened to missing daughters (yes, that trope incites the fast pace and violent action of this book too) and lethal drug lords alike makes her a heroine who gets under the reader’s skin in the best possible way. Munroe has demons, potent ones at that. But multiple betrayals and a mounting body count transform her further into a stealthy, single-minded creature: Get the job done, no matter what. “I am a phantom,” she tells one of her would-be vanquishers with quiet menace, “and if I must, I will hunt you down and destroy you.”
One can’t help but think that Munroe and Salander are lone wolves who, if they ever had a chance to meet, might discover they are really part of the same hunting pack. And as for Stevens, she writes with the confidence of one who knows she’s hit on a winning series character who has the world at her beck and call — and, perhaps, a growing legion of fans too.
Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at https://www.sarahweinman.com. “Dark Passages” appears monthly at latimes.com/books.