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What element drives a thriller?

February 18, 2010

You’d think books in the crime or thriller genre would rise or fall based on plot. The right twists and turns, the right surprise popping from the bushes, a great chase, exciting action, these would seem to carry greater weight than any other element: character, setting, the stylistic ability of the author, etc.

That’s what I think makes the late Stieg Larsson’s “Girl” trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”) particularly interesting (full disclosure, I’ve only read two of the three:”Tattoo” and “Fire”).  The “Girl” books have become an international  publishing phenomenon. They’ve been made into films in Sweden and now Sony Pictures is ramping up English language versions for the world market.

I’d say that what makes these books so good, however, is not their plots. It’s that the main character, the eponymous girl of the titles, is a fascinating creation. She is a swirl of opposites — highly intelligent, yet incompetent with people, small in stature yet deadly violent, expert at gathering other’s personal details yet highly secretive herself. Lisbeth Salander is a character that hooks the reader and evokes just about every emotion (including repulsion and anger). You simply have to keep reading.

Larsson, who died in 2004 of a heart attack at age 50, has created the perfect literary engine to hauls his books over any and all obstructions and deliver us to the station wanting more. With Larsson’s passing, Salander will get the James Dean treatment. Only appearing in three books, she will always be young and vital, never aging like the rest of us. She won’t run the risk of being worked too hard, worn out to fit the needs of 11 or 12 sequels. Kudos to Larsson for his fascinating “Girl.”

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