Magazine | November 1, 2010, Issue

Young Lisbeth

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage, 590 pp., $14.95), The Girl Who Played with Fire (Vintage, 630 pp., $15.95), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, 576 pp., $27.95), by Stieg Larsson

I got Dan Brown, I really did. The history was bunk, the prose was Lego, and yet there was something there — that maddening, tantalizing what’s-going-to-happen-next — that kept me turning, turning, turning the pages deep into the night. By contrast, the success of Stieg Larsson, the Swedish thriller writer, who would — had he not died tragically young (only 50) in 2004, leaving just three (completed) novels behind — now be seen as a challenger to the impious Mr. Brown, leaves me more than a little amazed.

Collectively known as the Millennium trilogy, those three books have together sold over 30 million copies worldwide and quite a few bytes beside: Larsson is the first author to be downloaded over a million times on Kindle. Each installment has been made into a movie in Sweden. The first two films (I haven’t seen the third) were characterized by fine acting, land-of-Bergman pacing, and, of course, land-of-Bergman language, a tough sell anywhere much south of Malmö. Sure enough, a Hollywood remake is on the way, complete with James Bond, well, Daniel Craig, as Mikael “Kalle” Blomkvist, Larsson’s journalist-hero, and, for that matter, Larsson’s fantasy Larsson.

Craig was a smart choice: Borrowed glamour is better than none. Blomkvist may, in his painstakingly proper, pragmatically Scandinavian way, be something of a Lothario, but he’s also a middle-aged, excruciatingly priggish leftist, steeped in the shopworn pieties and bottomless paranoia of a certain strain of northern European political correctness. A bracing suggestion of 007 will be just what this tatty scribbler needs.

Mercifully, Hollywood’s filmmakers will probably follow the lead of their Swedish predecessors and dilute the “progressive” preaching that drones on throughout the Millennium saga, most loudly in the shape of a septic feminism fueled more by an apparent dislike of men than anything else. As a teenager, Larsson is said to have witnessed the gang-rape of a girl by some of his friends, a horror that he failed both to stop and to report. The form his feminism takes is thus a very public atonement. It’s not subtle — the Swedish title of the first novel is Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), and its narrative is festooned with factoids designed to show just how hateful men can be. In all three novels his (almost invariably male) villains are brutish, sexist pigs, include abusers of prostitutes amongst their sleazy ranks, and, all too often, are in pursuit of underage entertainment.

Intriguingly, Larsson’s heroine and Blomkvist’s sometime lover, Lisbeth Salander, a busily bisexual 25-year-old hacker, is less than five feet tall, “doll-like,” and, until some breast-augmentation surgery in the second book comes to the rescue, “flat-chested, as if she had never reached puberty.” Make of that, Dr. Freud, what you will.

The more conventionally left-wing opinions that flavor the book are less bothersome and more predictable. The precincts of Schwedenkrimi (a subset of literature extensive enough to boast its own German compound noun) are a thoroughly Social Democratic (or worse) place. The genre’s pioneers (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, co-authors of an enjoyable series of books between 1965 and 1975) were Stockholm-style soixante-huitards. Their most prominent successor, Henning Mankell (best known internationally for his marvelous Inspector Wallander), is another red-flag man, and a veteran of the embattled Gaza flotilla earlier this year. Under the circumstances, Larsson, an erstwhile Trotskyite who, like the fictional Blomkvist, spent much of his career working for a small leftist periodical, fits right in.

#page#If Larsson’s politics are an irritant, his prose is a catastrophe. Nordic crime fiction tends to be written in a matter-of-fact way, but at his worst, Larsson is just a matter of lists:

She was back in Söder by 5.00 p.m. and had time for a quick visit to Axelsson’s Home Electronics, where she bought a nineteen-inch TV and a radio. Just before closing time she slipped into a store on Hornsgatan and bought a vacuum cleaner. At Mariahallen market she bought a mop, dishwashing liquid, a bucket, some detergent, hand soap, toothbrushes, and a giant package of toilet paper.

No, the translator is not to blame.

For all that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo passed the Dan Brown test. Easily. There was something about the mystery that forms its dark core — a classic locked (more or less) room whodunit complete with truly hideous family secrets — that pulled me in. Even so, by themselves neither the dreadful doings of the decadent Vanger clan nor the occasional glimpses of hauntingly wintry landscape would have been quite enough to do the trick. Throw in a brilliant investigator compared with whom old cocaine-and-Stradivarius Sherlock is Andy Griffith, however, and airport bookstores’ Stieg-crammed shelves begin to make sense.

Heavily pierced and tattooed, Larsson’s surly, taciturn, and thoroughly antisocial Salander is a pattern-finding genius with a preternatural gift for hacking more typical of those modem-heavy movies that littered the dawn of the Internet age. She is also, Blomkvist realizes, someone who almost certainly plays for Dr. Asperger’s team. Oh yes, did I mention that Lisbeth is handy with a gun and good in a brawl? Absence of empathy, a surfeit of strangeness, and a comic-book collection of skills make her an ideal subject for Larsson’s surface-dwelling talents, yet somehow this plodding Swede also manages the remarkable achievement of persuading his readers to care about someone who would not, could not, give a damn about them.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a decent, self-contained story. If Larsson had stopped there, all would have been well. Unfortunately, he didn’t. The remaining two books are in fact one (they are separated by an abrupt break of Dickensian shamelessness) and they should have been none. Despite a MacGuffin involving sex trafficking (a suitably modish variety of XY villainy, and much in the Swedish headlines when Larsson was writing), The Girl Who Played with Fire is really all about Salander, the eponymous Girl. She shifts from being puzzle-master to puzzle, a transition that Larsson fumbles and, in the course of the final part of the trilogy, drops. Part of what made Salander so interesting in the first place was the depth of her detachment, an idea that cannot survive her transformation in the second and third books into tough-grrl cliché, a lethal and seemingly indestructible combination of avenging angel, Modesty Blaise (an endearingly enduring heroine throughout Scandinavia), and, as underlined by a few sly hints in the text, Pippi Longstocking. Larsson had become so infatuated with his own creation (he had plans for ten books about her) that he came to believe that Salander, and the baroque background he dreamt up for her, would be enough to bring his readers along for the balance of the trilogy. Millions of the misguided have proved Larsson right, but your reviewer sticks to his opinion: Salander’s legend was allowed to overwhelm the story — and it wrecked it.

#page#Mind you, as baroque backgrounds go, Salander’s is a doozy. It ranges far from the obligatory wretched childhood, venturing into territory that the borrowed 007 could easily call his own, all the while retaining an aura of suspicion and resentment that has a lot to do with the author, and not much with the plot. To read Larsson is to be given the impression of a Sweden where a handful of dedicated comrades struggle for their vision of justice against the overwhelming power of the Man. Given how much of Sweden’s ancient Social Democratic consensus still lingers on (notwithstanding any impression left by the recent election results), that is still, unfortunately, something of a stretch.

Nevertheless, Larsson sometimes allows a glimpse of a more authentic Sweden to slip through, something that will add to the interest in his writing to those living outside that remote Nordic bastion. Some of it — the leniency of the criminal justice system when compared with the American model — ought to take nobody aback, but other aspects will be more surprising. Henrik Vanger, an aged and ailing industrial titan, is allowed to come across as a sympathetic figure, a reminder that in Sweden — home, after all, of the powerful Wallenberg dynasty — social democracy has traditionally come with a notably corporatist tinge. It is the “yuppies” (itself a tellingly dated term), assertive, individualistic, and disruptive of time-honored Swedish ways, to whom both Larsson and Blomkvist object. The grandees who had run the companies that actually made things were fine: The “twenty-point stags of the old school” knew their place in the old consensual nation — even if it was close to the top of the tree.

Some may be taken aback by how ethnically diverse Larsson’s Stockholm turns out to be. In part, this is simply a reflection of the facts on the ground (nearly a fifth of the Swedish population is either foreign-born or a child of two foreign-born parents), but in part this glorious northern mosaic was also clearly an attempt by Larsson, much of whose journalistic career was spent in the anti-racist trenches, to remind his Swedish readers that their Folkhem had changed (in this case, the implication is that it’s for the better), a theme frequently echoed by other Nordic detective writers: A muttered racial slur is a good sign that a murderer has arrived on the scene.

But for a more evocative sense of Scandinavian locations alongside Scandinavian mayhem, there are better  places to go. Wallander’s atmospheric Ystad is one obvious starting point, as is Jo Nesbø’s sharply drawn Oslo, but I’d rather start with The Darkest Room, the sophomore novel by Johan Theorin: a spooky, beautifully written tale of a manor house on a half-deserted Baltic island that is the setting for the most exciting snowstorm I have read in years.

And Trotsky is nowhere to be seen.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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