Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Following on from my appearance on Open Book to discuss Scandinavian crime writers, as posted here, this review was written for Crime Time, and is already on its website, here.

This is the second of Larsson's posthumously-published epic Millennium trilogy, and near its end the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, while searching the secret apartment kept by Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl, realises that she was 'the woman who hated men who hated women'. This epiphany is actually a very specific reference, which would be recognised by Swedish readers, to the title of the trilogy's first book, but was lost when it was retitled in English as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The new title was admittedly more attractive, and the best-selling success of the book certainly proved the point, but the reference was a sign of the fine balance which Larsson constructed between his two main characters, Blomkvist and Salander, and, more importantly, the way he constructed the trilogy, so concerns hinted at in the first book become magnified and play into both the plotting of the second, and into our understanding of Salander herself.

The book brings Salander to the fore. When it opens she has left Sweden, cutting herself off from Blomkvist, and despite her return home, albeit to an existence under all radar, the book turns quickly to Blomkvist's radical magazine Millennium. They have decided to publish an expose of Sweden's trafficking of young women, and the involvement of prominent Swedes in it. But when the journalist writing the piece, and his wife, whose doctoral dissertation has provided its core, are murdered, Salander becomes the prime suspect, in part because her legal guardian, and abuser, with whom she dealt in the first book, is killed with the same weapon. Salander becomes the object of a nationwide manhunt, and Blomkvist, trusting her innocence, begins his own investigation. Blomkvist's and Salander's stories remain separate; in fact, Blomkvist tells a good portion of the tale twice, from each character's point of view. Rather than being redundant, it is exceptionally effective, because there are always angles we cannot see where Salander is concerned, and we are just as befuddled as Blomkvist by her.

Larsson has created an interesting trope on the most popular style of Swedish crime books, that established by Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck and taken on by Mankell's Wallender. These books are valued for their perceptions about Swedish society, and their depressive cops are always about to be overwhelmed by the seamy realities underneath what is supposed to be a state devised rationally for the benefit of all citizens. Larsson's Blomkvist is more of a Per Wahloo figure (as a left-wing journalist) than a Martin Beck; Blomkvist is a socially well-adjusted journalist committed to righting the wrongs he investigates within that society, where Salander is, on the surface, exactly the kind of person with whom Swedish society cannot cope. This novel reveals much of Salander's back-story, and with it the roots of her anti-social personality. But as the plot is uncovered, and we, the readers, get deeper into what she already knows but never tells, and what others are trying desperately to either uncover or keep hidden, we discover that not only has she been let down by those who should protect her, but that her abuse has been deliberate, and condoned by powerful forces who control the Swedish state. Thus Larsson raises the basic question, one which had become more and more important in this country, of the dangers of a 'welfare' state turning into a nanny state, especially when, rather than working for the benefit of its citizens, a nanny state is easily manipulated for the benefit of the powerful few, and their apparatchicks, who would prefer it morph into an Orwellian security state.

Not that Larsson is didactic, at least not about those bigger themes. He can be woefully obsessive about the details of people's meals, or grocery purchases (Billy's Pan Pizzas may signify something deeper than a dish in Swedish society, but I have no idea what, and I got tired very quickly of reading about them), or how they eat (we don't need to be told that a bottle cap is removed before beer is drunk from the bottle). At one point Lisbeth herself says 'what you were drinking isn't important', and you feel sometimes that, had Larsson lived, he might have done some copy editing which would make the book flow more swiftly. One character, a champion boxer, seems to be introduced primarily as a plot device, but seeing the expert way Larsson wove material from the first novel into this one, I'm confident he will play a better role in the final volume of the trilogy, and accordingly I am willing to allow him his occasional longeurs. I'm impressed with Larsson's skill at plotting: he reveals the killer's identity much sooner than expected, perhaps removing some of the story's razor-edged ambiguity, but he still manages to keep the suspense going. He also can reference small items, like Salander's mother, whose condition in the first book is explained in the second, which also suggested the books are better read in order. This one contains story-lines, and characters, not least Salander's twin sister, which will obviously be continued, and hopefully resolved, in the trilogy's final volume. They also include the novel's most chilling villain, a psychologist whose role is only minor, but who has been set up carefully for a fall.

The other key element of Scandinavian crime fiction is the isolated nature of individuals within the societies, the personal space which they give each other, and to which an intrusive government seems intrinsically contrary. Hidden pasts play a huge part of this story, as they often do in crime fiction, but there are also things which the characters are hiding from each other, like Blomkvist's publishing partner, and lover, who is taking a job with a newspaper but can't bring herself to tell him. The relationship of Salander and Blomkvist plays on that, with the roles reversed from what one's expectations might be, and Blomkvist's egalitarian modern man irritates Salander, who proves far more traditional in her feelings that even she would expect.

Although they are not a Swedish Nick and Nora Charles, indeed, Larsson can keep them apart for virtually an entire novel, these books are very much about the relationship between the two. But as the titles suggest, Larsson's key character, his unique creation, is Salander. In fact, it struck me part way through this volume, that Salander, with her manipulation of computers, her hidden resources, her mysterious networks, and her awareness of things her enemies don't believe she could know, and her desire to redress old wrongs done to her by corrupt authority, resembles a classic figure of literature: The Count Of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes. And with that realisation, I recognised that Larsson's omniscient narration, his changes of point of view, his pace, are all very much in the Dumas tradition. And that I read this novel, and its predecessor, with much the same enthusiasm and involvement as I did when I first encountered Monte Cristo as a boy. That is not something one can say about many classics of modern crime writing, but it's why I don't hesitate to think of it as a classic.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Maclehose Press/Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781847245564


Ali Karim said...

Excellent and insightful Mike, good stuff and most enjoyable blog


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the spoilers!


It would be nice to mention to your readers that the article discloses important parts of the book. I am just at page 187 now and read things that didn't happen in the book yet.