Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo & The Girl Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Masterful Mysteries

Not since the Harry Potter novels has a series of books so connected with such a wide variety of readers as the Stieg Larsson mysteries have. Last week, on two successive days, I saw a different person, one male, one female, on the transit system reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in the late Swedish writer’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy. Over the last month, I’ve noticed at least half a dozen folks with eyes glued to that book and several more dipping into the first one in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Considering how few people read at all while taking transit or are content just skimming the free subway newspapers, that’s a pretty impressive statistic. Wondering what’s so great about the Larsson oeuvre? Lots, actually.

Larsson has created, in Lisbeth Salander, one of the most compelling, ferocious and complex protagonists ever to appear in mystery literature. She’s twenty-four when the series opens, a tattooed and pierced young woman who has suffered horrendous abuse in her short life, doesn’t trust a soul, is anti–social to an unparalleled degree, yet affects everyone she comes into contact with, so much so that they become her staunchest defenders.

The trilogy, which when it begins is set in 2002, concentrates on her relationship with Mikael Blomkvist, a fortysomething journalist, who first appears in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (in Swedish, the book was called Men Who Hate Women, which sounds like a nonfiction sociological treatise) after having lost a libel suit filed against him by a corrupt businessman. But it’s indicative of Larsson’s unconventional style of plotting, that the two, Blomkvist and Salander, don’t meet until several hundred pages into Dragon Tattoo. Before that fateful meeting – dare I say of an import as significant as that of Holmes and Watson? – Blomkvist is hired by a rich industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the mysterious 1966 disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Vanger is convinced she was murdered and, under the guise of Blomkvist’s writing Vanger’s autobiography, he wants the reporter to find out which of the many Vanger family members, most of whom he despises, is the killer.

That’s only one of the many threads in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which functions best as a fascinating exploration and depiction of Swedish society, a portrait that both confirms and dispels the view many of us have of the country as an egalitarian, sexually liberated place in which to live. Blomkvist, who works for a muckraking magazine called Millennium, has a longtime intimate relationship with managing editor Erika Berger, with the knowledge of and acceptance by her husband of their affair. He also gets involved with several other women in the course of the first two novels. That’s the Sweden we know and love.

The ‘other’ Sweden, Larsson is quick to point out though direct and indirect storylines, is a signifier of how sexist and homophobic Swedish society is and how the levers of the legal system, the police and the media are still largely turned by men (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). A female cop named Sonja Modig, in the second book, bumps up against misogyny and the dismissive attitudes of most of her colleagues. Salander’s friend Mimmi Wu, a lesbian, is taunted by some of the same cops. And Salander herself, with an unconventional, almost anorexic appearance, is either treated by men as a plaything, a punching bag, a sexual object or she’s dismissed as an unattractive woman, who could never land a man. It’s Salander’s understandable rage at the world around her that drives the books and makes them so irresistible; one person I know stayed up until 4 a.m. finishing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But it’s not only the disturbing societal attitude towards women which makes the ‘Millennium’ books so intriguing. Sweden, as depicted by Larsson, who was a reporter specializing in investigations of fascist groups in the country, is also a place, -- SPOILER ALERTS follow in the next two paragraphs - where the malignant influences of the Nazis are still quite apparent, particularly among members of motorcycle gangs, where a (somewhat) Orthodox Jewish cop named Jan Bublanski is seen as odd because he wears a yarmulke to work during the High Holy Days, something that would not necessarily raise an eyebrow in Canada or the U.S., and where a traumatized girl, Salander, is locked up in an institution and left to the not so tender mercies of impersonal and incompetent doctors. The social safety net in Sweden is not just frayed here, it basically has been torn to pieces and there’s’ not enough money in the system to help those who need it most. (Again, a familiar situation for us in North America.)

The beauty of Larsson’s books is that all those myriad details of Swedish life don’t get in the way of his gripping tales. The Vanger mystery involves Blomkvist in a very messy and fascinating family history that includes Swedish Nazis, fractured relationships and a missing girl who was fearful of something in her immediate environment. The Girl Who Played With Fire finds Salander accused of a triple murder and on the run, with only Blomkvist convinced of her innocence. It also works as a primer on the vicious sex trade in Sweden, which is supposed to be a high priority for the justice system to deal with but is, in fact, tolerated if not ignored by those in high places. Both books are terrific reads, without the breakneck pacing and manipulative plotting of some whodunits or the predictable, facile outcomes of others. I’m not a regular devotee of the genre but I couldn’t put these novels down.

I think the fact that Larsson, who died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 50, six months after submitting the three books to his publisher, was not a mystery writer per se -- though Blomkvist is a mystery reader -- is what makes makes the books work so well. (Larsson thought of the ‘Millennium’ trilogy as something to dabble in and was known in Sweden as a science fiction buff who edited some of the country’s best known fanzines when he was younger.) They’re not limited by the hidebound rules of the genre or the easy expectations of the fans. Larsson does it his way and takes what many would consider an inordinate amount of time (and pages) but what I see as using creative, imaginative paths, to get to the exciting climaxes of his stories. His atypical storytelling didn't affect the popularity of his books, which have sold some 27 million copies in 40 countries and bedazzled an extraordinary 3.5 million Swedes (out of a population of nine million). It's sad, however, that Larsson's longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, is not getting any of the books' royalties because the couple never married; under the country's inheritance rules, common law relationships have no value. Instead, the monies are going to Larsson's brother and father, from whom he was long estranged.

The ‘Millennium’ books are unique for their feminist subtext that somehow emerges as completely non - doctrinaire – a man is writing them, after all, and he refrains from any male bashing, despite the many villainous men Salander encounters during the course of her turbulent life. And because they’re from a country not often depicted in the literature that is translated into English, they’re all the more fascinating. I suspect that many readers are also responding to the novels’ idealistic views and moral tone (which British writer Nick Cohen has written about -; Blomkvist is hell bent, through his journalism, to make society better and Salander is essentially a determined individual who refuses to ever give in to adversity and oppression. She’s also a brilliant computer hacker, which may explain why so many younger readers find her of interest.

Admittedly, the translations by Reg Keeland are a bit stilted, in language and style, but not overly so. The sharp characterizations -- of Salander, of course, but also of Blomkvist, Berger and many others -- come across loud and clear and with impact. (Larsson reportedly planned to write ten books in the series, and most of a manuscript for the fourth book has been found in his computer files but for the moment the trilogy is all we have of his work.)

In that light, the Swedish film adaptations of the first two books, and in particular The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, are problematic movies, with Lisbeth, played by actress Noomi Rapace, rendered as prettier than in the books, less abrasive and thus more conventional. (I’ll be examining the first two films in the trilogy next week in Critics at Large.)

I’ve not yet read the third book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (with the insect plural in some countries, as The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest), which picks up immediately after the dramatic conclusion of The Girl Who Played With Fire but on the basis of its two fantastic predecessors, I don’t doubt it will be well worth my time.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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