It is now almost obligatory to say that Stieg Larsson—the Swedish journalist who died in 2004 and was unknown outside his native country until the posthumous publication of his first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—is a phenomenon. His foreshortened mystery series, the Millennium trilogy (originally planned to include ten books), has been translated into over 30 languages and has sold over 46 million copies worldwide. A subtitled Swedish TV mini-series based on the books did decently at the box office—so decently that the books are being adapted again, this time by the auteur David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) with James Bond star Daniel Craig.
Nor has the Larsson phenomenon run its course. Aside from the ongoing Hollywood adaptations, Larsson's brother and literary executor has confirmed the existence of a fourth novel, currently in the possession of Larsson's domestic partner (and possible collaborator), Eva Gabrielsson. This has unleashed another round of speculation regarding the completeness of the manuscript (the third novel is alleged to have needed some help), and more sensationally, regarding who will control publication. Friends and colleagues have come forward with their reminiscences of the author, including Kurdo Baksi's Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm (2010) and Gabrielsson's own forthcoming account. For the truly obsessed, Knopf has released a "deluxe" boxed set of the novels along with a slim companion volume, On Stieg Larsson, featuring essays about the author and his emails to his editor and publisher.
Of course, fads come and go all the time. Who would have expected the world would be transfixed, however temporarily, by the adventures of a professor of religious symbology (Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code) or a vampire-teen love affair (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series)? So why not the crime-solving exploits of a middle-aged business reporter and a tattooed computer hacker in Stockholm?
If anything is extraordinary about the Larsson phenomenon, it's not the millions of books sold, but the trilogy's much more extraordinary feat of uniting popular and elite tastes. Genre fiction will occasionally rise to the attention of the literary establishment, but there's never any doubt you're slumming it even if you're reading this year's winner of the Intelligent Person's Beach Book award. Larsson's trilogy, however, has largely evaded the genre label. It has appeared on the New York Times notable books of the year, been praised as "a modern masterpiece" by The Washington Post, noticed respectfully in highbrow magazines like the Times Literary Supplement, and even been blurbed by Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje—an honor definitely not accorded to Brown's mega-selling Angels & Demons.
On this count, the trilogy's Swedish origin is undoubtedly an asset, lending the books both exoticism and an air of European sophistication (Ingmar Bergman is frequently invoked in reviews). Larsson's dramatic career as a crusading leftwing journalist has likewise proved irresistible. As the founder of the antifascist magazine Expo, Larsson exposed and monitored the activities of Sweden's far-right groups, provoking death threats which forced him into hiding. He died, at age 50, of a heart attack, before his novels were published—circumstances that to the conspiracy-minded still seem suspicious. In short, the backstory is perfect—but what of the novels?
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Here things get complicated (and, fair warning, spoilerish). The trilogy, really one long novel, brings together two unlikely partners as its heroes. The first is Mikael Blomkvist, authorial stand-in and founder of his own scrappy political magazine, Millennium (hence the trilogy's title). As the series' straight man, he has no real personality aside from an inexplicable ability to seduce every woman he meets (a characteristic made much more explicable with the casting of Daniel Craig, although even the suave 007 might have trouble with pick-up lines like these: "You give off the most incredible sexual vibrations. Who on earth do you think can resist that?") Blomkvist is also supposed to be a brilliant investigative reporter, which is no doubt made easier by having his own personal WikiLeaks always ready with the perfect incriminating document. Emails from corrupt financiers relishing their corporate misdeeds? Check. "Double super secret background" documents from Sweden's secret police to which even the prime minister doesn't have access? Got that, too.
The supplier of these documents and the series' eponymous "girl" is 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander. Like all good progressive heroines today, Salander embodies a bundle of girl-power fantasies: virtuoso hacker, boxing/martial-arts expert, possessor of a photographic memory, chess grandmaster, and math whiz (she solves Fermat's Last Theorem while hiding in the woods waiting to ambush a bad guy). Despite her slight frame (under five feet, 90 pounds), she's tough; in the second book, she literally digs herself out of her own grave, having been shot three times (once in the head). If these were not superlatives enough, she is also drop-dead gorgeous ("With the right make-up, her face could have put her on any billboard") despite a penchant for black lipstick, towering mohawks, body piercings, and, of course, dragon tattoos—a tough look for a girl to pull off.
Their saga begins with the girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), easily the series' best book and the only one that can stand alone. Our sleuths meet cute while Blomkvist, on sabbatical from Millennium after losing a complicated (and boring) libel suit, is investigating the decades-old disappearance of a Swedish tycoon's niece; Salander, hired to spy on him, has been hacking into his computer. Impressed by her technical savvy, he persuades her to assist him in solving the case—an ingenious "locked room mystery" that takes place on a remote northern island. Soon, in an expectedly unexpected reversal, their cold case turns hot as the pair uncovers evidence of a serial killer's lengthy spree.
The unraveling of the serial killer plot is enjoyable enough, but the more compelling mystery (and the subject of the later novels) is Salander herself. Why is she so solitary and mistrustful, so ferociously autonomous? How did she come to possess her nearly supernatural survival skills? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, wisely, offers only hints of her traumatic past, how she was railroaded at the age of 12 into a mental institution and the monstrous abuse she endured upon her release. Its sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010), delve more deeply into her history, toying with genre conventions along the way (the political thriller and the courtroom drama, respectively) and rapidly devolving into preposterousness. By the trilogy's final novel, Salander has become the central figure in a shadowy conspiracy involving her psychopathic father, an ex-KGB agent; her genetic-freak of a half-brother, an albino giant invulnerable to pain; and a rogue section of the Swedish secret police. Upon her survival, the very fate of Swedish democracy depends.
If Larsson's plotlines are absurd, his prose is pure airport thriller, invoking laughter more often than dread, e.g., "She was locked inside an area of about 10,000 square feet with a murderous robot from hell." His reportorial background often betrays itself with his constant recourse to obsessive, step-by-step detail. He doesn't describe so much as document. Larsson gives entire itineraries (across Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm and then on to Hornsgatan) unfathomable to anyone not currently living in Stockholm; lists the ingredients of the open-faced sandwich his characters have for lunch; and inventories the brand, make, and model of every component of Salander's ultra high-tech hardware. At one point Salander makes a trip to Ikea to furnish a new hideaway, and Larsson catalogues every single item in her 90,000-kronor shopping list, down to the last krona. Incidentally, these encyclopedic digressions explain why the novels, although hefty, proceed at such a breakneck pace (you can finish one in a weekend or on a long plane trip); you're never really reading, but only skimming until the characters arrive at the next plot point and happen upon another clue. That momentum is crucial. Like a magician performing his act, Larsson depends on distraction and speed. The reader can never slow down long enough to think about what's happening lest all the various plot incongruities and slip-ups are revealed.
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In the hands of another author, the Millennium trilogy might have been an entertaining if slightly ridiculous crime caper. Larsson, however, treats his subject, even at its most cartoonish, with deadly seriousness. This manifests itself most clearly in the trilogy's strident leftwing politics, particularly its denunciation of violence against women. Each section of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original title: Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women) opens with a consciousness-raising statistic, e.g., "46 percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man." In the series, it's more like 100%, although the ladies—including Blomkvist's super-competent editor, an iron-pumping policewoman, and Salander herself—are more than capable of striking back. Still, lest anyone miss his point, Larsson has Blomkvist explain at the trilogy's end, "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it."
Skeptical observers have noted the incongruity of Larsson's outspoken feminism and the gruesome depictions of female degradation in his novels. Some have even suggested the real purpose of the trilogy's gender politics is to provide a politically-correct cover for the more titillating and pornographic passages. Whatever Larsson's motivation, the politics and the violence are definitely linked; indeed, the grislier the violence, the more moralistic the surrounding framework must become. Salander is the perfect avenger ("the woman who hates men who hate women") only because she is "the perfect victim." The pain she's endured justifies the pain she inflicts.
And she inflicts some serious pain. At the tender age of 12, she douses her abusive father with gasoline and sets him on fire. When she is brutally raped by her seemingly upstanding legal guardian (a member of Greenpeace and Amnesty International), she doesn't go to the police or a women's shelter: "Crisis centres existed in her eyes for victims and she had never regarded herself as a victim." Instead, she executes her most celebrated act of comeuppance: breaking into the offender's house, disabling him with a Taser, torturing him, and finally, tattooing his stomach with the message, "i am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist."
Salander's actions are extreme, but she always abides by a code: her uncompromising belief in individual moral agency. Near the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist meditates on the deeply dysfunctional childhood of the subdued serial killer whom he laments as "a repressed boy." Salander is appalled: "It's as if we no longer believe anyone has a will of their own." No set of circumstances—no matter how terrible—can ever serve as an excuse for evil. Thus, Salander rejects the liberal notion that crime is the product of social forces, which she sees as the self-serving piffle (she uses a cruder term) of the "sheltered middle class from the suburbs." As an inhabitant of the urban jungle, where the strong prey upon the weak, Salander can have no such illusions:
By the time she was eighteen, Salander did not know a single girl who at some point had not been forced to perform some sort of sexual act against her will. Most of these assaults involved slightly older boyfriends who, using a certain amount of force, made sure they had their way. As far as Salander knew, these incidents had led to crying and angry outbursts, but never to a police report. In her world, this was the natural order of things.
But she refuses to accept this natural order. Her refusal puts her in opposition to the Swedish welfare state, which turns a blind eye to the injustices that befall Salander and her sisters. The police ignore cases of sexual assault and the growing sex-trafficking trade; the government watchdog agencies refuse to prosecute corporate corruption; Sweden's neo-Nazi and far-right groups are allowed to spread unchecked. In Salander's case, the state actively colludes in the crimes against her, in retaliation for her intense non-conformism. Unlike the "good" victim who meekly turns to the authorities or a "crisis centre," she fights back—and thus must be stopped.
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Salander's indictment of Swedish society includes even her partner Blomkvist, who shares her moral absolutism but cannot embrace her methods. "For Blomkvist the golden rule of journalism was that there were always people who were responsible.... The bad guys," Larsson writes. Blomkvist knows that "a bank director who blows millions on foolhardy speculations should not keep his job," and is scathing about journalists who docilely "regurgitate the statements issued by C.E.O.'s and stock-market speculators." Yet he regards Salander initially as "an information junkie with a delinquent child's take on morals and ethics," and cannot accept "that the raptors of the world only understood one language"—the language of force.
As a result, he is largely ineffectual. Salander saves his life countless times during the trilogy, and without her hacking skills, he would have nary a scoop. It is she who steals the critical documents that make his big exposés credible—the emails that allow Blomkvist to ensnare a wily banker, the treasure trove of child pornography that discredits a sadistic psychiatrist, and finally, the classified report that proves the existence of a government conspiracy to destroy Salander. Her hacking is the electronic extension of the physical retribution she metes out to criminals, and is described in similarly violent terms: "If there was any dirt to be dug up, she would home in on it like a cruise missile.... Her reports could be a catastrophe for the individual who landed in her radar."
As a one-woman army against injustice, Salander has been celebrated as a feminist action hero. The Millennium trilogy certainly exploits the frisson in having a female character bring on the punishment. But Larsson achieves something new by his refusal to feminize or soften her personality. She is hardened and totally affectless; at times, she is believed to be sociopathic. (Blomkvist, more generously, diagnoses Asperger's). Her tagline, soon to be immortalized by Hollywood, is: "Do you like pain, creep?"
It's not exactly "Do you feel lucky, punk?" but it does remind us where we've heard this story before. A lone vigilante who fights injustice in a supposed liberal paradise, and whose ire is especially raised by crimes against women? This is the plot of Dirty Harry (1971), in which a hardboiled detective tracks down a crazed sex killer in San Francisco; of Death Wish (1974), in which Charles Bronson mows down rapists and other assorted lowlifes in New York City; and of all their various sequels and remakes. Larsson updated the franchise with some contemporary pop culture flourishes—the female avenger with her high-tech wizardry and goth get-up-but he left the core of the story intact.Luckily for him, it turns out that Lisbeth Salander, along with all her other singular talents, has perfect timing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrived on American shores the very week Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. For three books at least, she offered readers the fantasy hope that someone, somewhere, could still set things right.