Women of mystery

The bedtime allure of Miss Marple and Lisbeth Salander.

click to enlarge Women of mystery - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Women of mystery

...so there's the fire escape And too many keys

Beside the bed the empty glass accuses

no one everyone The Matron's eyes protrude

like gooseberries her glance startled when she sees

the Inspector studying her knees...

When I was a boy, my parents told me I was ruining my eyes by reading at night by flashlight under the covers — a method I preferred, as on the one hand transgressive, and on the other protective against the murky lurkers of the night, like reading in a tent on a camping trip. My eyes indeed were ruined, but it seems now this was caused by German measles, rather than my habitual clandestine reading.

I'd like to tell you I was reading Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost; but no, my night-time reading tended toward detective stories, thrillers or plain trash, often mixed together, like the Bulldog Drummond and the Saint series (not to mention the occasional forbidden comic books, like Sheena Queen of the Jungle).

I suppose I was pushed in this direction by Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories I first read in a fat black hard-cover anthology with red lettering: The Horror Omnibus. I still remember my nervous excitement reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" — the chained man's anguished cry, For the love of God, Montresor!, has lodged in my brain since I first read it, along with Sheena's clinging leopardskin outfit.

This explains a lot.

After Poe, I soon discovered Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes; and Jeanne and I relive the pleasure of their stories by watching Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple outwit criminals on Sunday night's Masterpiece Theater, or the various Sherlocks appearing in contemporary movies. The last one was Robert Downey Jr.'s interpretation, which I thought weird, though I recognize Holmes is harder to recreate cinematically than Poirot — they're both observant, but Holmes is particularly thinky, hence the use of voice-over when Downey contemplates a corpse.

I still prefer books to films; and I still like my night-time reading to be detective stories. Poetry keeps me awake, as do "literary" novels: a friend of mine just wrote that reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past changed the way he looked at the world — this is a good thing, but not the best bedtime reading.

I'm thinking these thoughts because I've hopped on a popular bandwagon, and am two-thirds through the Stieg Larsson trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire — next is The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. The pages in these fat paperbacks add up like Proust's Remembrance or Tolstoy's War and Peace, but it's much less of an effort: it's reading for pleasure and relaxation. I devour poems and classic novels in smaller bites, pausing to think, often making notes. With the Girl trilogy I'm zipping along, and stop when I get sleepy.

The books' attraction, more like Christie's than Poe's, is a page-turning plot, along with a pierced and tattooed non-hero, Lisbeth Salander, an almost autistic young woman with a photographic memory and world-class computer-hacking skills. Rings pierce her body parts, and a large dragon's tattooed on her back, along with a small wasp on her neck — symbolizing her unlikely boxing ability (like Mohammad Ali's "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee").

Larsson's moral outrage about violence against women drives the story: "Salander was the woman who hated men who hate women." Where Miss Marple, dealing with duplicitous murderers and slow-witted inspectors, illustrates that women can be smarter than men, Salander's an abused girl who gets revenge, a surrogate for victimized women around the globe.

Unlike Poe's, the writing (translated from Swedish) is undistinguished and occasionally flat, but Larsson tells a gripping story, reminding us that men are still maltreating women in various nasty ways. It makes you think, if these things can happen in Sweden, what about the Congo, India, Mexico... Tampa Bay?

An ironic coda: Larsson died of a massive heart attack in 2004 at age 50, before his books were published, leaving no valid will — thus bypassing his partner of many years, Eva Gabrielsson, all rights going by Swedish law to his estranged father and brother; they even got half of her house.

...Now gathered in the library the crime gaping before us like a hungry hearse we clear our throats we smooth our suit and dress ...and now the Inspector turns for the last time toward the Matron the Student the Butler the Nurse: We stiffen like corpses crazy to confess...

—Both quotations from "Mystery," in The Contracted World by Peter Meinke, 2006.