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Book Review

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Two other books in the series are also available: The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest
Ian Mitchell

ast month the third and final book in the strange but wildly popular series of crime novels by the Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson, was published. Why am I so confident that this will be the last, when publishers like to extend successful series almost indefinitely these days? Because Mr Larsson is dead. And the curious thing is that he died in circumstances ominously connected with the subject-matter of his novels.

The heroine of the series is a tiny, lightly-built, unattractive, anti-social, bisexual computer ace with a love of violence, a hatred of men, a photographic memory and a preference for black lipstick and revenge of the classic Calvinist sort: two eyes for an eye; two teeth for a tooth. She seems to think of herself as incarnating the wrath of God.

Her name is Lisbeth Salander and she lives in Stockholm, a city not normally noted for ugly, mannerless, man-hating savages. But then the plots of the books turn mostly on the belief, which the journalist hero, Mikael Blomqvist, shares with the author, that Swedish society is riddled with misogynistic corruption, especially in the semi-fascist police force and security services. It deserves the vengeance of Lisbeth Salander.

Blomqvist is, as Larsson was in real life, involved in publishing a left-wing magazine which exposes these malign influences. He is a hero of the dull, selfrighteous, moralistic sort that anyone who has experience of the international charity industry will be familiar with. He never laughs, rarely smiles, never makes a joke, and never does anything irrational, passionate or poetic. Apart from having sex occasionally, he does nothing but plod away making the world a better place.

Happily for the novel, he is attacked by a super villain, is defeated and nearly bankrupted and, as a form of salvation, asked to solve the mystery of a series of murders in rural Sweden, which he manages to do only with the help of little Lisbeth. They do so in the spirit of people who refuse payment for work they did for moralistic reasons. They are not presented as likeable people, or even particularly interesting ones. Indicative of the author’s approach is the Swedish title of this book: Men who Hate Women.

The writing focuses on material things to the extent that you learn more about the square-footage of the character’s apartments than you do about their emotional lives and inner motivation. You really need a map of Stockholm to follow parts of the story. And the villains are such wooden, two-dimensional, predictable characters that they could almost have been invented by Jeffrey Archer. The prose is without a glint of anything resembling wit. You get life histories with dutiful completeness, but as Robert Graves said of the Bible, the ultimate moralisers’ text, there is “not a smile from Genesis to Apocalypse”.

So why have these books sold so well? In 2008, Larsson was the world’s second best-selling novelist. I suggest there are two reasons, if one disallows the fad for Nordic fiction which erupted after Peter Høeg published Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Henning Mankell hit the top of the charts with the ‘Detective Wallender’ books. The first one is that Lisbeth Salander, for all her awfulness, is actually a curiously attractive character in her context.

That context is the hideously conventional and, dare I say it?, unRussian world of respectable Swedish society. She is a rebel, and small and fragile with it. Also she has a cause, which is not justice, as the dreary Blomqvist seems to think, but just to say “Sod the lot of you!” to complacent, conformist Swedish bourgeois society. Not surprisingly, she is revealed to have foreign blood in her. And that foreign blood is as dangerously anarchic as it seems a moralistic Swedish novelist can invent: her father is Russian, and an ex-KGB agent to boot!

The second factor is the strange story surrounding the author himself. He came from a family of committed communists in the hard-scrabble north of Sweden. Larsson was a militant leftwinger, so much so, that he left the huge fortune resulting from the success of these books to the Communist Party in his hometown, of Umeö. Control has gone to his father and brother, excluding completely his wife of 30 years. He did not even like the brother, but presumably the cause was more important than his wife, who has been left penniless.

Larsson died on 9 November 2004 which, as the British journalist, Christopher Hitchens, has pointed out, is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Officially, he suffered a heart attack, but there are rumours that he was the victim of a murder plot by a Swedish ex-SS veteran. He was only 50.

His British publisher has said, “I know someone with excellent contacts in the Swedish police and security world who assures me that everything described

The Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson
Maclehose Press £7.99

in these book actually took place. Larsson planned to write ten books in all. So you can see how people could think that he might not have died but have been ‘stopped’.”

Perhaps that is what makes these book compelling reading. Behind the prosaic glumness, there is something real about the stories: life red in tooth and keyboard.

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