[I mentioned Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy a few posts ago. Here’s a piece I did for Business Standard]
The Scandinavian chill is almost a tangible presence in Stieg Larsson’s excellent thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in a posthumously published series of crime novels known as the Millennium Trilogy. Much of the book is set in the small (and fictional) Swedish town of Hedestad, where a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist is investigating the possible murder of a young girl decades earlier. Blomkvist isn’t in the best of spirits when he begins this freelance assignment – an exposé he recently did on a prominent industrialist backfired, resulting in serious trouble for the magazine he publishes – and the miserable weather (the temperature drops to minus 37 degrees at one point) both mirrors and intensifies his inner gloom.
This cold, dark nighttime of the soul is vital to the book’s effect: some passages have the atmospheric quality of the Norwegian film Insomnia, about a detective unable to sleep both because he’s haunted by his conscience and because of the midnight sun. For Blomkvist, his stint in Hedestad amounts to a sort of voluntary exile, though the task at hand is intriguing enough to keep him going. What secrets are being harboured by the large Vanger family, and how did they lead to the disappearance of Harriet Vanger 40 years ago?
At any rate, the novel's pace picks up when Blomkvist teams with a researcher named Lisbeth Salander, a young woman driven purely by the self-preservation instinct, with no regard for society’s laws or moral codes – all of which makes her useful for her hacking skills and other unconventional methods. As they start to make inroads, the weather begins to improve too, but for the reader The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remains shiver-inducing on other levels. Though the case is initially described by a character as “a locked-room mystery in island format” (because Harriet had disappeared from an island that was cut off from the mainland due to a bridge accident), it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a cosy mystery novel.
Those of us with a dim outsider’s impression of the north European countries tend to think of them as quiet, manicured, law-abiding places with shockingly low population densities and crime rates, and an unhurried pace of life. But there’s nothing prettified or mundane about much of the detective fiction that has emerged from the region in recent years – books by writers like Henning Mankell and Liza Marklund that reveal the darkness which can lie buried beneath calm surfaces. In the Millennium Trilogy, this largely involves the masked but often vicious misogyny prevalent in Swedish society: in fact, the first book’s original title translates as “Men Who Hate Women” (which the publishers of the English-language edition probably thought was not very marketable for a work of genre fiction). Each of its four principal sections opens with a statistic about violence against women in Sweden; the dated mystery that Blomkvist is investigating gradually broadens into a much larger narrative involving gruesome ritualistic killings that continue to the present day; and there is a parallel thread about the delinquent Salander’s experiences with her sadistic male guardian.
As a realistically plotted and paced detective procedural, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rivals the classic Martin Beck series written by the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. At well over 500 pages, it covers a wider range of themes than the the slim Martin Beck books do (an important sub-plot involves big-business corruption and the irresponsibility of financial journalists), but like them it’s driven by character development and procedure rather than by quick thrills – to the extent that it frequently jettisons plot elements that other genre writers might have spun a cottage industry out of. Without giving too much away, some of the crimes Blomkvist and Salander find themselves investigating involve literal interpretations of Biblical passages, but Larsson makes this incidental – he doesn’t turn it into a little game where the sleuths are trying to work out what each murder means, with pages full of long-winded exposition. He’s more interested in showing us how the amateur sleuths go about their business and what their work reveals about the society they are investigating.
The dramatic back-story to the Millennium Trilogy is that Larsson, who was himself a journalist, died of a heart attack shortly after delivering the manuscripts for the three books to his publisher. The English translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (by Reg Keeland, who has also translated thrillers by Henning Mankell among others) has already become something of a publishing phenomenon and the second book in the series, The Girl who Played with Fire – about sex trafficking and the exploitation of underage girls – is on its way to achieving similar status. The concluding part, The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, will be published at the end of this year and the trilogy, all told, will run to over 1500 pages. It might be hyperbolic to call it the Swedish War and Peace, as some international reviews have done, but there’s no denying that this is a powerful, sweeping work that combines the best of genre writing with sharp social commentary.