I’m late to the bandwagon of Stieg Larrson, but I can see why so many people are reading this translated Swedish thriller trilogy. I just finished the first novel, I’m 50 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second, and I’ve been promised a lend on the third.
Part of the appeal is that Larrson respects his reader’s intelligence and creates characters that are intellectually, as well as politically and sexually, motivated. Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist and editor of a scrappy investigative magazine called Millennium, is one of genre fiction’s more appealing heroes, in part because his masculinity is surprisingly unconventional. I usually read mysteries or thrillers with women gumshoes or protagonists, because I find the hardboiled masculine variety predictable and sometimes offensive.
But Blomkvist is compromised from the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as he’s been indicted and sentenced to prison for libeling a powerful industrialist named Wennerstrom. When we first meet him, then, he’s already flawed, although his journey follows the archetypal trajectory of the wronged hero who’s vindicated after he survives a series of trials that prove his righteousness. I’m not spoiling anything with this description—this is one of the rules of the genre, and watching it play out with so many relatively progressive (politically) twists is what makes this kind of novel so pleasurable and compelling.
Blomkvist restores himself to favor in the course of a labyrinthine plot that takes him north of Stockholm to a small, frozen island in the Norrland where he’s persuaded to spend a year in the employ of another powerful corporate mogul, the worthy Henrik Vanger. In his declining years, the melancholy elderly man is desperate to solve the mystery of his niece Harriet’s disappearance from the island 40-odd years earlier.
Hedeby Island’s population teems with Vangers, a family dynasty with plenty of skeletons rattling in terribly sordid closets. Because Henrik Vanger doesn’t want his family to know that he’s hired Blomkvist to continue investigating the unsolved mystery of what most presume is Harriet’s murder (though her body was never found), Henrik assigns Blomkvist to write the older man’s biography as a cover. As the shrewd journalist combs through the family patriarch’s extensive archive of materials on Harriet’s disappearance, Blomkvist pieces together a story about perversion and corruption that Larrson makes both plausible and harrowing.
Much of the book describes Blomkvist poring over evidence and interviewing likely suspects or people whose lives in one way or another touched Harriet’s before she disappeared in 1966. Research and interviews are staple tools of the mystery/thriller genre, but Blomkvist’s character is set off by the fact that his stock in trade is journalism, rather than police or detective work, which gives him a slightly different cast from the genre’s typical heroes. Blomkvist’s motives start as personal; Vanger promises him that if he gets to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance, he has information about Blomkvist’s nemesis, Wennerstrom, which will prove Blomkvist’s innocence.
But before that happens, Blomkvist actually does his time in jail, even if it seems a very cushy, decidedly white collar stint in the slammer, during which Blomkvist continues his investigation for Vanger examining files and photographs in between his mandatory work assignments and exercise.
And before he’s given the carrot Vanger promises, Blomkvist finds himself committing to his investigation for more personal reasons. He begins a casual affair with another one of Vanger’s nieces, Cecilia, whose father is a Nazi sympathizer, along with at least one of his other brothers. Cecilia proves one of the book’s several interesting women characters, and one of the three with whom Blomkvist has sex through the story.
Cecilia is in her mid-50s (about 10 years older than Blomkvist), long divorced, admits that she hasn’t had sex in some time, and chooses to seduce Blomkvist within minutes of meeting him. But because she’s wary of emotional involvement, and because sex seems to send her into frenzies completely incompatible with her more reserved daily emotional exterior, she keeps reeling him in only to cut bait and run.
The “man on a yo-yo” theme is typical of Blomkvist’s relationships with the women in Dragon Tattoo, a refreshing change for a genre in which the heroes are more typically men who phone in their relationships with women, seeking bed companions on their own terms and leaving the women to wait for their call. Larsson’s hero rarely passes up a sexual opportunity, but I don’t believe he ever actually initiates one.
Blomkvist’s long-term occasional sexual companion is also his smart, competent business partner, Erika Berger, a woman he’s known since they were both young journalists. Berger is married to another man. Gregor, Erika’s husband, knows all about her relationship with Blomkvist—the arrangement seems to suit everyone just fine. Erika and Blomkvist truly love one another, and their work together on Millennium, the political muck-raking magazine they own and co-edit, sets off intellectual and political sparks that fuels their sexual commitment.
That they aren’t married to one another, however, is a nice touch; that no one minds their unusual arrangement is also kind of cool. Erika walks in on Blomkvist with other women several times throughout the story, and while she’s always embarrassed at what she’s interrupted, she’s never jealous or angry. As usual, in Dragon Tattoo, the women in his life control the enactment of Blomkvist’s desire. And none of them are eager to haul him down the aisle.
To call his third sexual partner, the series co-anchor Lizbeth Salander, Blomkvist’s side-kick would diminish her importance to the story and its action and fail to describe her relevance and appeal. The genre’s conventions typically require one hero or heroine who, although he or she might frequent likely people for support or companionship, typically goes it alone to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer. In Dragon Tattoo, Larsson writes Blomkvist and Salander as an odd-couple who complement one another and contribute equally to the resolution of the plot—in fact, they simultaneously but separately realize the villain’s identity.
The two don’t actually team up until halfway into the story, although Larsson keeps their activities on parallel tracks until they intersect. Salander, a brilliant computer hacker, works freelance for a security firm and is assigned to background-check Blomkvist by Henrik Vanger’s lawyer before the old man hires him to find Harriet. In the course of investigating the journalist, Salander comes to her own conclusions about the Wennerstrom affair, which prove relevant as the story unfolds.
But it’s only when Blomkvist realizes he’s been investigated and reads her report that he seeks Salander out and proposes that she work with him. And it’s only because her work is so extensive and impressive—even if she’s uncovered things about him that he knows she obtained by illegally hacking into his computer—that he pursues her as a work partner. Their relationship, in other words, is professional and mutually admiring; they’re both whip smart, driven, curious, and skilled.
Salander is one of the most compelling, unusual characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. She’s a young woman with her own mysterious back-story, one that Larsson hasn’t fully revealed by the end of Dragon Tattoo. She’s a ward of the state, legally determined incompetent to govern her own affairs, even though she’s by now twenty-five-years-old. Her relationship with her new guardian, a slimy lawyer named Bjurman, taps into old traumas, as he tries to manipulate her and wield his state-derived power over her ugly in ways she can’t accommodate. How Salander gets her revenge is one of the book’s most satisfying—and surprisingly feminist—chapters.
In fact, to complement Blomkvist’s equitable way with women, the unusual Salander is the book’s feminist heroine. She’s young and troubled, but she’s enormously smart and wily. Her photographic memory and quick curiosity makes her a gifted investigator, but her social awkwardness, which clearly stems from her dark personal history, keeps her an iconoclastic loner.
She lives in a messy hovel, dependent on Bjurman to dole out her finances; she chooses her sexual partners based on fleeting desires for physical connection, with little regard for emotional commitment, which she assiduously avoids; she reveals nothing of her inner life (Larsson consistently describes her eyes and demeanor as “expressionless”); and she’s particularly wary of men, even as she chooses them (as well as the occasional woman) as sexual partners.
When she and Blomkvist become lovers, it’s Salander who seduces him (in a typical mystery with a male hero, this would inevitably be vice versa). And although he protests that co-workers shouldn’t sleep together, she points out that he and Berger have an on-going affair that doesn’t seem to hamper their professional relationship. But once Blomkvist and Salander have sex, and even though they live together in the small cottage Vanger provides for their work on Hedeby Island, they don’t adopt the conventional routines of coupledom.
She keeps her own counsel, and bristles when Blomkvist tries to draw her out about her past (and even when he compliments her on her brilliance, which she thinks makes her a freak). She retains her right to be enigmatic and antisocial, often refusing to answer Blomkvist’s questions and leaving town without a word, avoiding her cell phone to prevent being tracked down. Salander is a cipher, even to the reader—through the first novel, we never find out the root of her exceedingly guarded relationship to her own life.
That mystery makes her exceptionally compelling, alongside her prodigious intelligence and commanding savvy. She dons leather chaps to ride her motorbike; she drinks heavily when appropriate, and smokes cigarettes freely; she’s hedonistic in unusual, fascinating ways. Salander understands, as the evidence unfolds, that the seamy underside of the Vanger empire is built on a profound hatred of women—she diagnoses and explicitly names misogyny in ways rarely seen in a genre that’s famous for building its plots on the backs of exploited women.
But at the same time, for reasons Larsson doesn’t fully describe, she’s deemed “incompetent” by the state, has been institutionalized for too much of her life, and is now controlled by a corrupt guardian who exercises more power over her affairs than any theoretically free person should be forced to withstand. Salander’s contradictions and the character’s ambiguities propel the narrative as much as the central plot.
I’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that many of the book’s crises and resolutions are among the best I’ve read in the genre, and twist the typical gender politics in feminist ways. Watch for Lizbeth’s revenge over Bjurman, which enacts a kind of feminist fantasy; watch for the scene in which the villain is revealed and entraps one of the two protagonists, forcing the other to the rescue; and watch for continuing twists and turns, as one portion of the mystery is solved only to propel you into another, as each of the plot's strands click together by the end. Even the resolution provides a kind of feminist triumph, with smart, emotionally cool new characters appearing to vindicate the proceedings.
I’ll risk one spoiler to lodge my only complaint: That Lisbeth Salander would find herself in love with Blomkvist by the book’s end seems completely out of character. Without understanding her life story, Larsson doesn’t give us enough reasons to believe that she’d allow herself the luxury of such emotion, even though he presents her feelings as a surprise even to herself. Although now that I’ve started the second book, it seems her realization could have been a plot device to set in motion The Girl Who Played with Fire, at the end of Dragon Tattoo, her however uncomfortable admission of love cheapens a relationship in which Salander has been refreshingly unsentimental and in control.
That said, I’m hooked enough to continue into The Girl Who Played with Fire, and to give Larsson the benefit of the doubt.
A Swedish film version of the first book has been released, which I’m eager to see, and press speculation circulates about casting for the English-language film. I’ve heard Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart both mentioned for the Salander role, among other young actors. Stewart’s more sinewy frame and her sulking, emotionally guarded sexuality makes her my pick for the role.
In another world, Salander would be played by Shane, from The L Word. I don’t think Kate Moenning, the actor who played the hard-living, non-monogamous lesbian hair stylist character, is up to the task, but the look would certainly work.
A girl can dream. But in the meantime, I’m going to burrow back into The Girl Who Played with Fire.
The Feminist Spectator