Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A locked-island mystery: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy

[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.


  1. It occurs to me that Wallander and some others of modern Nordic crime fiction attempt to analyse the collapse of their societies in contrast to some idyllic past when was all was well. In doing so, they infect their prose with relentless pessimism, which, for some reason, excites their ever-growing readership. I have come across few cheery Nordic writers (Yrsa Sigurdardottir is an exception); the Spanish and the Italians are much sunnier. I hasten to add that the few Nordic books I've read have all been psychologically insightful, so perhaps that lack of sunshine engenders some amount of introspection? What do you say?

    There's an overwhelming preponderance of Scandinavian crime writing in any list of translated fictions these days - perhaps the success of the earlier writers such as those you mention is encouraging many more to attempt the genre. For hard noir, few are better than the Italians at the moment, though. (Shameless plug here of my impressions (not full reviews) of translated crime fiction).

  2. Feanor: hey, keep those shameless plugs coming! Your posts make for very enlightening reading. Someday, if I ever get back to reading mainly for pleasure (fat chance!), I hope to discover some of these titles. Have become very interested in crime fiction generally.

    he few Nordic books I've read have all been psychologically insightful, so perhaps that lack of sunshine engenders some amount of introspection...Or excessive, 24-hour sunlight? Either way, I wouldn't mind reading some theories on the bearing that climate has on a national character (not just in Scandinavia but in general).

  3. I am glad you mentioned the Martin Beck series, they are one of my favorites especially the Laughing policeman and The Man on the Balcony. The other series which gives me much joy and is in a completely different vein, as Fëanor it puts so well, is from Italy: the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camillieri.

  4. These books were truly fantastic specially due to the very unique and compelling Lisbeth Sanders. To dream up of a character like her to be the main protagonist and to actually make everybody root for her is brilliant. She has to be one of the best heroines to be created in print. Cant wait for the last book!

  5. "Or excessive, 24 hr sunlight?"Prescient, Jai, very prescient. You could have scooped this bit of research that shows that excessive sunlight contributes to depression and suicide.

    Here's to more prescience from you, heh-heh.

  6. I agree: I think the strength of these thrillers is in Lisbeth's character. It occurs to me that the best detective fiction needs an unforgettable character at the heart of it, its why we remember our detectives so well. I also thought these are very different from the Mankel novels because its quite ott and colourful in its violence and action, less 'interior', scandi with a Thomas Harris touch. Anyway these are the most addictive books I have read in a long time. I couldnt stop reading dragon tattoo and then rushed to buy the second. One of the things i found most interesting narratively is that in both books, larrson takes his time for blomquist to meet lisbeth... draws out our anticipation, almost like a good love story. cant wait for the third book.

  7. You might like this (longish) essay about the Nordic identity and its representation in culture (by Stefan Jonsson). E.g. Who can say why this subtext of dark waters, female figures, suicide, child murder and death by drowning flows beneath the pictures of society portrayed in the Nordic text?, which has bugged me quite a bit in Scandinavian crime fiction; also the question of whether the climate and landscape affects the Nordics particularly is discussed: We Nordics have long since tired of the clichés. The grip of the cold, the vast tracts of forest, the fells and the cries of the diver over dark waters in the white summer night. When anyone claims that Nordic art and literature reflect an experience of life on the borders of the natural world, we are quick to deny it.

    This is a Nordic view of his own world; perhaps as counterpoint there should be an outsider's view on it as well?