By Adam Roche
You may not know it, but in 2008, Stieg Larsson was second only to Khaled Hosseini in book sales around the world. With 12 million copies of his ‘Millenium’ trilogy sold worldwide during that year alone, he single handedly brought the world’s attention to the emerging Swedish literary market, which was for the large part, relatively untapped until then.
But Larsson never got to hear the news.
In November of 2004, at the age of 50, he suffered a massive heart attack and died, having completed but never having published, the books that were to make him a household name.
Larsson spent much of his life as an activist, actively campaigning against “the growth of the extreme right and the white power-culture in schools and among young people” that he felt was prevalent in Swedish society. He founded the Swedish Expo Foundation, and Expo magazine, which documented and exposed Swedish extreme-right and racist organisations, which in turn led to his receiving death threats for the last fifteen years of his life. Indeed, even now rumours persist that his death was the result of a threat made good.
In the evenings, however, Larsson wrote stories. For such a politically active person, his day job could not help but intrude, and bleeding into his work was the spectre of his beliefs. Part fiction, but part commentary, the ‘Millenium’ trilogy reflected the way Larsson thought about Swedish society, and exposed the areas he wished illuminated. The fascinating thing is that he never even considered them publishable at first. They were simply a way for him to vent his spleen about such matters, while he honed his skills as a writer. Irony has dictated a different fate for his work. 12 million copies have been sold so far, and Part 3 has only just been released.
Electro Candy this week reviews ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, Part 1 of the ‘Millenium’ trilogy, and also known as ‘Men Who Hate Women’ in Sweden. With the October 1st release of Part 3, we felt it was a good time to cast an eye over the whole trilogy. Parts 2 & 3 will be reviewed over the next two weeks.
Mikael Blomkvist, the middle-aged publisher of ‘Millenium’ magazine, has just been released from prison as a result of losing a libel case against corrupt Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. As a result, ‘Millenium’ magazine is in severe financial trouble, and fast losing support among advertisers.
Blomkvist is contacted by Henrik Vanger, the aging head of a wealthy family with a proposition to write a history of the Vanger family. When Blomkvist arrives to discuss the matter, he discovers that the history is merely a cover for Henrik’s true purpose; to discover the fate of his great-niece, Harriet Vanger, who disappeared forty years ago at the age of sixteen from the island that the Vangers occupy. In return for Blomkvist’s work, Vanger promises to supply him with the proof he needs to expose Wennerström’s corruption. Henrik is convinced that Harriet’s killer is taunting him by sending him a present of pressed flowers on his every birthday, a gift she used to give to him when she was alive.
Blomkvist is skeptical that he can unearth anything new about the mystery, but as he delves further into the family history, shocking revelations begin to emerge.
Firstly, the island was cut off on the day of Harriet’s disappearance, which means that not only are we presented with a locked-room mystery, but a locked-island. Secondly, could the Vanger family be harbouring a dark secret about their political associations of yesteryear?
Requiring a research assistant, Blomkvist meets Lisbeth Salander, and it is here that the story truly comes to life. Salander is an anti-social punk, an expert hacker with a grudge against men who hate women, and who has a horrifically black past behind her. With Salander’s help, they soon begin to piece together the puzzle of Harriet’s disappearance, and the grotesque revelations that accompany it.
Firstly, I would like to make clear that I enjoyed this book immensely. It feeds the gaping hole left in me since I finished the last of the Agatha Christie novels all that time ago. Here we are presented with one of those puzzles that at first seem impossible, but as time goes by, we consider scenarios and theories backed up by clues, until we are detectives ourselves, hunting with our heroes for the next break in the case, the elusive passage of testimony we missed the first time.
As a thriller, it barrels along to it’s conclusion, and yet, and here is the important thing, it does stop for breath regularly. Quite often, long stretches will occur in which not much really happens. Characters sleep, drink coffee, consider information, go for a drive. They call each other and talk about unrelated events. Side plots are played out in massive pauses to the main plot. New characters are introduced with no consequence to the central mystery. And incredibly, the book does not become boring for it. Indeed, Larsson uses these opportunities to further his characterization, to fill in blanks and add an extra veneer to his painting.
The second strong point in it’s favour is that the central plot doesn’t shy away from the air of dread and horror it slowly creates. Throughout the length of the novel, the sky does darken, and the air does become a little stifling, in preparation for something terrible. It quite easily could have chickened out, but it sticks to its guns and delivers on the horror. Harriet’s fate is indeed a horrifying one.
However, the book’s greatest strength is Lisbeth Salander, an absolute gift of a character. Here we have a hero so flawed, so abused, so psychologically well drawn that her dragon tattoo, her piercings and her pout will be the images that spring to your mind long after you have finished reading. Such is her strength of character and attitude that she lives and breathes independent of the page, whether she is moodily seducing Blomkvist, or suffering the most gruesome of attacks at the hands of her “guardian”, Lisbeth Salander is perfectly crafted and voiced, and stands out not just as Part 1’s defining achievement, but that of the complete ‘Millenium’ trilogy.
But, there are drawbacks.
It’s hard, seeing as this is a book originally published in Swedish, to determine if it is Larsson’s original text, or the work of the translation that causes the prose of the books to suffer so badly. Sometimes, Larsson’s voice becomes so intrusive that it feels as though the window between the reader and the characters has been lined with lead. This may be because of the omniscient point of view Larsson uses, which allows him to hop in and out of character’s heads, as well as describe the world around them in God-like fashion, but I must admit to never having felt it clang so hard with other writers.
Plus, it does pain me that whilst this is a cracking thriller, it can hardly be called literary. You will rarely find a remarkable use of language here, no captivating metaphor or similie. We are simply given endless information about something, stark and to the point. Even Agatha Christie took time out to sketch a character now and then. Hercule Poirot is described as “hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side”. It’s a visible description, unlike Larsson’s description of Henrik Vanger, a major character, who earns the laundry-list introduction of “He wore neatly pressed dark trousers, a white shirt, and a well-worn brown casual jacket. He had a narrow moustache and thin steel-rimmed glasses”.
The lack of imagination in the language does tend to become a little tedious after a while, as does Larsson’s insistence of unnecessary details, such as the make, model and RAM of every laptop or computer that someone uses, along with complete listings of contents of grocery bags, which can sometimes stretch for a paragraph and have absolutely no bearing on anything.
However, for all it’s faults, the book contains enough strengths to carry it through. You may find yourself wincing at the text occasionally, but it’s central mystery and ornately designed characters will intoxicate you. Once you have fallen for its charms you will not consider putting it down until it has given up its last secret. Be assured that there are many for it to reveal.
And there are many more to come…
Selected pictures from the upcoming movie “Men Who Hate Women” (2008) from Yellow Bird Films
Part 2 of the ‘Millenium’ trilogy, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’ is reviewed here