Given the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo trilogy, it is not all that strange that publishers would be plumbing the Swedish literary trough for the next Steig Larsson. And while Jan Wallentin is a journalist and his debut thriller includes a skinny young girl, who rides a motorcycle and can whip her weight in large economy size men, his Strindberg’s Star doesn’t quite measure up to Larsson expectations, great or otherwise.
Indeed, Strindberg’s Star, which by the way refers to photographer/explorer Nils, and has nothing to do with August, the misogynist playwright, has a lot more in common with a Dan Brown novel than it does with the Larsson books. Unfortunately, the one thing he doesn’t have in common with Brown is the ability to create a page-turning narrative. Strindberg’s Star didn’t keep this reader on the edge of his seat, and what else is a thriller for?
Wallentin has concocted a convoluted tale about Arctic explorers, Nazis, secret cabals, psychic powers, mystical ancient relics and mythological visions of an Underworld. It has its un-heroic hero Don Titelman chasing over Europe and points north in a Robert Langdon-like quest for the star that, together with an ancient ankh discovered under strange circumstances by a diver–who is killed soon after–will provide a key to the underworld. Titelman, an ex-medical doctor and pill junkie, who has become an academic specializing in Nazi esoterica, is accused of the killing, but escapes with the help of a middle aged female lawyer, Eva Strange, and together the two set off in search of answers.
Neither Titelman nor Strange is the conventional thriller hero, and at that would seem promising at first. Wallentin makes some attempt to turn Titelman especially into a multi-dimensional character. A Jewish academic, he is haunted by his grandmother’s stories of the Holocaust. He carries around a pack filled with a pharmacopeia into which he is constantly dipping for an upper, a downer, or something in between. He is constantly parroting Yiddish phrases. He is only marginally interested in pursuing the mystery of the ankh and the star, and is fairly ineffectual at it. Eva on the other hand, despite her graying hair, seems a much more dynamic actor. And while there are some strange things about her—when wounded she seems to recover with inordinate speed—she is often the more capable of the two.
Elena, the Lizbeth Salander clone, is really a minor character. Discovered as a child to have some sort of psychic powers, she is taken from her mother by a secret society of wealthy industrialists with powerful ties to military and intelligence services throughout the world to be indoctrinated to their service. Unlike the spirited Salander, she is pretty much an automaton carrying out the orders of the man she calls Vatar. She is but a pale imitation of the strong-willed Salander.
The narrative itself is weighed down with elaborate explanations that as often as not simply retard its forward movement. The explanation of the background of the ankh and the star and how they work, is less than illuminating and seems to go on forever. At times the clues they follow are merely gratuitous. There is, for example, a big deal made about a note with some quotations from Baudelaire, but other than the identification of the poet with evil, he and his poem hardly seem relevant. Indeed the whole exposition about the Strindberg expedition in 1897, while it may be historically interesting, and even necessary to the plot, is never presented in any compelling fashion.
In some sense that is the novel’s biggest problem. It is much too easy to put it down.