It’s hard to escape Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo these days in bookshops: the eponymous heroine’s gorgeously rendered face glaresout from posters and book covers, from independents to Dymocks. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Quercus, 602pp; $32.95) is the final instalment in Larsson’s posthumously published Millennium trilogy, named after the magazine for which Larsson’s hero, the journalist turned private investigator Mikael Blomkvist, writes. Larsson was the number two global bestselling author in 2008 (after Khaled Hosseini). In Denmark, according to his publisher, Larsson’s books have sold more copies than any book other than the Bible. In Stockholm, it is possible to take a guided tour of the locations in Larsson’s novels, including the 7-Eleven where his tattooed heroine, Lisbeth Salander, buys her copious supplies of Billy’s Deep-pan Pizzas. A Swedish film of the first book was released earlier this year, and Hollywood is seeking to produce its own English-language version.
In life, Larsson was widely admired as an outspoken opponent of neo-fascism in Sweden, and dedicated his career to advancing the political causes he cared about: he was for a time the editor of a Trotskyist journal, founded the leftist magazine Expo, and contributed to the anti-racist UK publication Searchlight. Since his death in 2004, Larsson has been sanctified as a feminist champion and celebrated for reinventing the crime thriller. His untimely demise – by heart attack, aged 50, reportedly brought on by heavy drinking and smoking – has lent an elegiac tone to the generally rapturous response to his fiction. It has also led to a certain amount of forgiveness. The books are overly long, most reviewers agree, oddly paced in sections, and filled with tedious plot recaps, unnecessary detail, awkward subplots and a gratuitous number of sexual conquests for Larsson’s alter ego, Blomkvist (or “Bonkvist”, as he has been nicknamed by one Amazon reviewer). But obviously the author didn’t have a chance to edit them.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the longest of the three books, suffers from all these problems, but, as with the first two, intelligent plotting and vivid characterisation compensate for a lot. Together the three books offer a passionate indictment of some of the worst wrongs of our times, from corporate gangsterism to sex trafficking, corruption and abuses of power at the highest levels of government. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest picks up the action from the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, without missing a beat, and completes the trilogy’s shift from murder mystery to conspiracy thriller.
There is something unclassifiable and formally strange about Larsson’s fiction; he likes to establish the reader’s expectations and then screw with them. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we embark on a story about one man’s fight to expose corruption in the financial world; then, abruptly, we find ourselves in the middle of a murder plot, an elaborate version of what one of the characters describes as a “locked-room mystery” in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers, as Blomkvist is sidetracked into investigating the 25-year-old mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Just as we get a handle on the enormous cast of characters who may have been involved, the story morphs into a hunt for a serial killer seemingly obsessed with Leviticus. We return with a dizzying sense of vertigo to the financial-corruption plot at the end of the volume; it now seems irrelevant, boring, weird, and it goes on, confusingly, for a hundred pages after the murders are solved.
What makes it possible to stay with Larsson and his hero through these narrative turns is the entrance of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker who starts out investigating Blomkvist and ends up working alongside him. Along with her many tattoos, she is liberally pierced, bristling with punkish rivets, and given to wearing T-shirts with confronting slogans such as “Take this as fair warning.” Shortly after Salander comes on the scene, it almost ceases to matter whether we are reading a book about a corporate villain, a serial killer, or whatever: the story that matters is hers, and the final two books in the trilogy place her firmly at their centre.
Uncompromising, unsmiling, with the body of a teenage boy and the brain of a computer genius, Salander is the antithesis of every Swedish middle-class stereotype. The three books are peppered with references to her likeness to Pippi Longstocking: her superhuman strength, resourcefulness and cavalier attitude to social rules. It is always a sobering comparison, however, for Salander has little of Pippi’s joyful, playful spirit. She doesn’t deal well with authority, and Larsson’s second and third books reveal the very good reasons why. The child of a psychopathically abusive father and a shockingly victimised mother, Salander was unfairly institutionalised at the age of 13 after she tried to murder her father with a match and a can of gasoline. She was judged “mentally incompetent”, meaning that a court-appointed guardian controls every aspect of her life. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Blomkvist exposes the secret network of spies who have conspired to protect Salander’s father, a Russian defector and all-round creep, and who now plot to silence Salander by having her convicted of attempted murder.
Salander forcefully embodies the limitations of the benevolent Swedish state when it comes to taking care of its most vulnerable citizens, and it is through her that Larsson imagines the most appalling abuses of power by those in authority. It is somehow both pleasing and bracing to be reminded that while Sweden (the land of cheerful, sensible Ikea) is a world leader in gender equality, it has a much darker side: a history of Nazi sympathy and persistent far-right activism, political assassinations, violence against women (statistically higher in Sweden than in its Scandinavian neighbours) and sex trafficking.
Through Salander, Larsson channels his most cherished theme – misogyny – and offers us its avenging angel. The Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women – really! – and Salander is explicitly described in The Girl Who Played with Fire as a “woman who hates men who hate women”. There should be no mistaking Salander’s implacable hatred of misogynists for a hatred of men in general, although misogynistic characters in the books do make this error – generally to their severe disadvantage.
As an action hero Salander is unbeatable, and once she takes centre stage in The Girl Who Played with Fire she becomes a human tornado: give the girl a can of mace and she’ll take down two armed male adversaries (and steal one of their motorbikes for good measure). She drags herself out of her own grave with a bullet in her brain, re-materialising before her killer as a bloody, dirt-encrusted vision wielding an axe. Lest readers become too caught up in the intrigue, drama and general narrative mayhem, Larsson issues a stern reminder towards the end of the trilogy, in the voice of Mikael Blomkvist: “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.”
Swedish crime fiction is known chiefly for depressive male investigators such as Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, but feral Swedish girls are definitely hot right now. Eli, the vampire at the centre of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In (2004; better known here in its unsettling, beguilingly beautiful movie version) is another Salander-like figure. Socially alienated and ultraviolent when necessary, Eli and Salander – childlike, unemotional, taciturn – are seductive in entirely unconventional ways. Salander will remind some readers of the American writer Carol O’Connell’s detective, Kathy Mallory – a hard-nosed borderline sociopath and computer genius – and of Luc Besson’s tough yet vulnerable assassin in the film Nikita (1990).
The sexual politics of Larsson’s stories are complicated by the fact that Salander’s admirable strength as an avenger is predicated on her own horrific victimisation; she has to be raped and abused before the story of her revenge can be set in motion. This is the conundrum Larsson has confronted: how might it be possible to condemn men’s hatred of women without telling stories that illustrate it? And how might different kinds of writing – journalism, history, fiction – answer that question? His hero is a journalist, but the success of Larsson’s novels proves the role that imaginative literature – even in the little-esteemed genre of crime fiction – has to play in generating critical debate about the most serious social and political issues.
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