Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago…
by Stieg Larsson
608 pages, MacLehose Press
Review by Pat Black
So, back to the previous decade’s literary hits. I’ll get to Game of Thrones soon. By 2020. Promise. After I finish Flowers In The Attic.
I enjoyed The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Swedish murder, shagging and sanctimony trilogy. Its sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, sees abuse survivor and ace hacker Lisbeth Salander getting on with her life, taking fancy holidays and buying a luxury pad after embezzling millions from a crooked businessman.
Our other hero, the journalist Mikael Blomqvist, continues his liberal crusade at Millennium magazine, fully vindicated and nicely remunerated after solving a series of nasty murders, finding out what happened to a missing heiress and clearing his own name following a libel case.
But there’s some trouble in store. A journalist attached to Millennium and his girlfriend are shot dead in the middle of an investigation into people trafficking. Round about the same time, Bjurman, the repellent lawyer who is Salander’s state-appointed guardian and also her rapist, also has his head turned into Ikea meatballs.
Salander’s fingerprints are on the weapon used to kill all three. Soon, the eidetic super-hacker and unarmed combat expert is the subject of a nationwide manhunt. The tabloid press feast on details about her exotic personal life thanks to a leak in the police inquiry. For a while, we are led to wonder if she actually is the killer.
It’s just as well that Blomqvist, general do-gooder and Salander’s erstwhile lover, doesn’t think so.
The book focuses on Stieg Larsson’s favourite theme: how we challenge the denigration of women, professionally, personally, institutionally and sexually. When we think of Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries we usually imagine sophisticated social democracy, sexual liberation and easy-to-assemble furniture. But Larsson’s trilogy shows Sweden as no different to the rest of the world in terms of corruption, scandal, hypocrisy and toxic masculinity. The book’s villains are people traffickers, pimps, gangsters and men in authority who use and abuse women, whether for money, power or pleasure. Blomqvist, part John Pilger, part boy scout, is ruthless when it comes to exposing these people. Salander, however, tends to go one step further, employing violence in her quest to destroy men who hate women.
The book begins with vengeance visited upon a wife-beater at the storm-hit tropical paradise our girl holidays in. Then, prior to his head being blown off, Bjurman – so memorably accounted for by Salander in the previous book – is again the subject of our heroine’s sinister ministrations. Salander, who hacks into computers and steals data as easily as you or I might flick through the TV channels on a bored Tuesday night, knows precisely what Bjurman is up to. If she sees something she doesn’t like, she breaks into his house and threatens him.
Now, Bjurman deserves all he gets, no question of that. But Salander’s scrutiny of every aspect of his life made me uncomfortable. It is a two-way scenario, as Salander needs Bjurman’s artificial reports on her social progress in order to live her life unhindered, having been declared incompetent and mentally defective. Bjurman is a pig, hardly deserving of sympathy. But why not simply deliver him to justice?
The answer is that Salander likes punishing him – not only physically and mentally, but in terms of controlling the entire structure of his life. His every move is scrutinised. He dare not indulge his violent, criminal sexual preferences without incurring Salander’s retribution. Like me, you may have a vindictive side which appreciates the savage justice in this, but in its own way this is sadism. This element of Salander’s character helps make her so compellingly unique, but also poses serious questions about her morality, and ours.
This is a violent book, and most of the aggro is meted out by Salander. True, it’s mainly for self-defence purposes, and any nasty encounter she has is visited upon people who bring it upon themselves. Let’s say Salander is not the type of girl to bring a knife to a gunfight. Her actions are balanced by the more cerebral approach of Blomqvist, who starts from the premise that Salander has been set up.
Blomqvist is a libertarian, hell-bent on exposing corruption and unfairness wherever it exists. He’s also sexually incontinent, though not quite as prolific here as he was in the first book. Blomqvist is fond of Salander, and cares about her welfare – but the sex they enjoyed in the first story seems almost incidental. He mainly focuses his affection on Erika Berger, his editor at Millennium, with whom he enjoys an open relationship with the full approval of her husband.
This gets even more kinky when we get Berger’s view of things. She reveals her ultimate fantasy is a threesome with Blomqvist and her husband – a desire she has indulged before with another third party. Her husband has bisexual tendencies, which she wishes Blomqvist shared. Unfortunately, she reflects wryly, Blomqvist is “too straight” for such a scenario. Berger, who seems to have given just about everything a go sexually, chides Blomqvist for being a square.
This libertine attitude continues through Salander, whose chief romantic interest is a performance artist called Miriam Wu, but who appears to have only ever loved Blomqvist. She also beds a teenage boy after meeting him on a beach while she’s on holiday. She doesn’t seem particularly fussed about questions of sexual orientation, simply attending to whatever itch she wishes to scratch in a given situation. Again, the typical response to these acts is to say: “Bloody Scandies! What are they like?” But I do wonder if this kind of laissez-faire approach to who sleeps with whom reflects reality in Sweden.
To play devil’s advocate: if you’re that free and easy with your sexual boundaries, then at what point does your behaviour become unacceptable? Larsson draws a very firm line at prostitution and people-trafficking. Allied to this delineation, his villains, both primary and secondary, are absolutely repellent, toxic males. As Salander says prior to one confrontation with a pair of bikers; whenever she wants to do something, there’s always a beer-bellied oaf in her way.
The big baddies are up to their necks in criminality and vice, but even the secondary villains – such as Salander’s former colleague at the security agency and a boorish detective who’s too cross-eyed at the idea of Salander’s sexual behaviour to think straight – see women as simple “bitches” who need to be brought to heel. They are happy to lie and cheat in order to do so.
There are no grey areas. It’s black hats and white hats.
On the goodies’ side, Blomqvist is the moral core, while Salander is the woman of action comfortable with swinging a bat when she needs to. The third-person narrative reminds us directly that both our heroes are flawed. Salander’s thought processes and convictions are painted as unusual, if not outright mentally ill, while Blomqvist’s idealism is frequently dismissed as naïve. Despite this, we are rarely in any doubt who’s in the right.
There are ways in which the story’s sexual politics and libertarian values could have been challenged. Imagine Berger, a beautiful, accomplished, mature woman, decides that she wants to sleep with a 21-year-old trainee at the magazine. Imagine that, after a while, he decides her advances aren’t welcome.
Or let’s say Miriam Wu isn’t interested in being restricted to desultory encounters with Salander - often summarily dumped until her strange partner drifts back onto the scene. What if Wu is in love, and decides to say so? Salander might not understand, and try to pull away. But what if Wu doesn’t want to let Salander go? What if passion over-rides blurred moral lines?
It can go darker still. Let’s imagine Blomqvist gets that little bit older, and finds himself in possession of a receding hairline, a proliferation of chins and a swelling beer belly. Let’s consider a scenario where pierced, tattooed and yet still gamine computer hackers nearly three decades his junior and beautiful urban sophisticates with an exciting lack of restraint stop being interested in him.
We know Blomqvist drinks, occasionally to excess. Problem drinking in Nordic climes, where in some places the sun only makes a brief appearance in the darkest parts of the year, was subtly portrayed in that other great piece of noughties popular art from Sweden, Let The Right One In .) Let’s say one night, when he’s not had any of that fun, free-wheeling, anything-goes sex for a long time, Blomqvist gets drunk, stumbles down to one of Stockholm’s less salubrious areas, and…
I digress. Idle speculation.
As for the baddies, we focus on two antagonists. One is a Terminator-style blond giant slabbed over with muscle who appears not to feel any pain, while the other is a sinister puppet-master known only as Zala. Investigating the latter shadowy figure gets the journalist and his girlfriend killed. There’s also a link to the ill-fated Bjurman. What this has to do with Salander is for her to know and everyone else – primarily Blomqvist – to find out.
The book relies on vast coincidences which stretch credibility. My favourite of these was the introduction of the heavyweight boxer, Paolo Roberto, who used to train Salander when she was a young girl. Hearing that Salander is in trouble and smelling the same rat Blomqvist does, Roberto involves himself in the search, and crosses paths with the blond hulk at just the right time.
Hmm. You don’t suppose they’ll have a fight, do you..?
This book has a twist which you’ll figure out quite quickly. It bears similarity to another famous trilogy which I will not name for spoilers’ sake. The link seemed so obvious that I actually dismissed it at one point, chuckling at my silliness, before being proven right. I wonder if Larsson was aware of this parallel line, or if anyone ever got the opportunity to point it out to him?
In any case, this bridging chapter follows the conventions of modern trilogies perfectly. We end on a cliffhanger, with key questions unanswered, and some intriguing new information about one of the main characters.
Like its predecessor, this is a fantastic thriller, a true page-turner which merrily dispenses with all known creative writing course advice. There’s lots of telling instead of showing, and we couldn’t care less.
This book is now more than 10 years old. The big giveaway is the description of obsolete tech. “Palm” device and Powerbook references were the most jarring, although the first generation smartphones Larsson describes are not too dissimilar to the handsets we have today. These anachronisms aside, technology is a major facet of these books, revealing a creeping level of intrusion into our private lives. Salander’s hacking skills and the ease with which she breaks into secure systems to find out every little morsel she could ever wish to know about her targets is hair-raising, and all too believable. One moral blind spot of Blomqvist’s is that he does not question this activity, seeing it as a tool to utilise in bringing the unjust to book.
Fair enough; but that’s a two-way street. What would Blomqvist have made of phone-hacking, for example, or mass surveillance by government agencies, tech giants and advertisers? He surely wouldn’t have approved, but it can’t be one rule for Blomqvist and Salander, and one for everyone else. This is a sticking point which is never quite explored, and again, you wonder if Stieg Larsson – who had planned several more Millennium books – would have questioned increasingly intrusive technology given a bit more time.
Larsson’s ultimate tragedy is similar to that of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole. He died suddenly before his books achieved success beyond his wildest imaginings, a genuine worldwide phenomenon. He never enjoyed the fame and riches this would have brought him, and had no idea that his characters would become familiar to millions. We can lament this, but having read two of these books, I also grieve for the loss of Stieg Larsson the journalist.
It’s dangerous to draw parallels between fictional characters and their creators, but in Blomqvist there must surely be an element of Mary Sueism. Like his creator, Blomqvist is a middle-aged man with liberal principles who fearlessly tackles far-right extremism, upholds individual liberty and champions women’s rights. In the wake of the Millennium Trilogy’s success, I imagine that Stieg Larsson might have used his fame and fortune as a platform to pursue criminal and political injustices not just in his native land, but across the world.
Equally, he might have retired somewhere warm and taken a great big bath, but I don’t think so.
In his journalistic career, Larsson was known as a risk taker who made dangerous enemies. It can be habit-forming. Perhaps here, looking beyond the strange, compelling and sometimes twisted world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, we see the face of the true hero.