Seeing Sweden through the eyes of Stieg Larsson
Larsson’s hugely popular Millennium novels are not only brilliant page-turners – they also challenge the clapped-out view of Sweden as a social paradise peopled by buxom blondes and depressives.
To many outsiders, Sweden is a land of contrasts: a melancholic welfare state where bikini models brush shoulders with suicidal depressives. A country where the sun barely sets in summer and rarely rises in winter, and which has produced both ABBA and Ingmar Bergman. It is also a country that has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and one of the highest numbers of crime fiction writers.
Through the prism of violence, misogyny, murder, perversion and breaches of justice, Swedish crime writers are taking a forensic look at their society, passing a magnifying glass over the calm surface of what to many right-wingers and liberal lefties is still a socialist’s dreamland.
Perhaps it is precisely the strength of the image of Sweden as a civilised, democratic, equal and pacifist society – the nice kid just to the west of the former Eastern block – that gives its crime writers, many of whom have become international bestsellers, their allure. The calmer the surface, the more forceful the revelations of supposed sordidness simmering beneath it.
The married Marxist journalists-turned-novelists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who are often credited as the originators of the modern Swedish crime genre, intended to ‘use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperised and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type’. Between 1965 and 1975 the couple wrote 10 crime novels featuring the gloomy Inspector Martin Beck.
Thirty years later, Stieg Larsson, another leftie Swedish journalist, turned to crime fiction writing. Author of the Millennium trilogy – or, considering its astounding success, perhaps it is more apt to call it the Millennium phenomenon – Larsson, too, intended to write a series of 10 novels. Sadly, his ambitions were cut short as he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004 soon after submitting the three first instalments to his publisher.
In light of Larsson’s premature death, the posthumously published Millennium series’ success is rather poignant. Larsson was the world’s second best-selling author in 2008. To date 15million copies of his three books have been sold in 40 countries; in Sweden, which has a population of nine million, the sales figures are 3.5million. The books have been turned into hit movies, with the third part premiering in Sweden next month.
Each book in the Millennium series – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – is a complete story. But the consequences of the first story become apparent in the next, and only after reading all three do you get a sense of the full picture, of where the main characters came from and what turned them into who they are. Supporting characters are introduced at regular intervals and they play key roles, lending credibility to the main plot, propelling it forward and throwing in new details and twists to the tale.
In their separate ways, the central characters – the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the anti-social, computer-hacking, apolitical feminist avenger Lisbeth Salander – are committed to punishing individuals who abuse their power and are motivated by greed.
Blomkvist, who, to his own dissatisfaction, has been nicknamed Kalle Blomkvist by the media world (after the children’s book writer Astrid Lindgren’s fictional boy detective), is an old-school investigative reporter, committed to truth and justice. He will not shy away from taking months to piece together watertight stories that run into 100 pages if necessary. Known to dig out scoops that can make or break careers, shatter multibillion corporations and shake up the bourgeois press, Blomkvist nevertheless comes across as a humble and unassuming man.
Unusually for Swedish crime novels, this hero is not a gloomy, lonesome recovering alcoholic, though he does have a neglected daughter after a failed marriage. He’s a man of principles who lives on a rather innocent diet of sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes. His exposés of corrupt businessmen, his womanising and the crusading journalism of his magazine, Millennium, has given Blomkvist a cult status in his hometown of Stockholm and beyond.
Salander is modelled on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. She is an independent young girl, frail-looking but with nerves of steel and a photographic memory; she wears T-shirts with slogans like ‘I can be a regular bitch. Just try me’ and ‘Armageddon was yesterday – today we have a serious problem’.
Though this odd pair solves murder mysteries and exposes trafficking rings and breaches of justice, they rarely actually meet. While Blomkvist is off meticulously gathering facts and documents to back up his statements, conscientiously offering anonymity for his sources, Salander hacks into computer databases, breaks into private property and metes out violent revenge.
There are several red threads running through the books in the trilogy, but the genres also shift between each book, so that even if you read all three back-to-back they don’t feel repetitive. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (its more punchy Swedish title is ‘Men Who Hate Women’) is a locked room mystery à la Agatha Christie. The Girl Who Played With Fire is essentially a police thriller, but one which contains a complex web of cat-and-mouse chases between journalists, sex traffickers, gangster bikers, cops, private detectives and secret servicemen. The third book takes up where the second finishes and is more explicitly political. Here, Blomkvist and Salander expose breaches of justices and the shady dealings of a corrupt special unit within the Swedish secret service which had locked Salander into a psych ward at the age of 12 in order to protect her father, a Russian GRU defector, who was selling secrets to the West during the Cold War.
Despite all this, Larsson somehow manages to dispel any incredulity the reader might feel. The strength of the Millennium series is that the cliffhangers, imaginative plots and inevitable happy endings somehow seem realistic because much of the storyline is based on real places, events and people. For instance, the boxing champion Paolo Roberto has a cameo, as does Kurdo Baksi, a Swedish journalist and commentator of Kurdish origin who was Larsson’s close friend.
In light of the IB-Affair, the Cold War warriors who enter the story in the second book also seem credible. In the 1970s, Jan Guillou – also a leftist journalist and crime writer – and his colleague Peter Bratt were sentenced to 10 months in prison for espionage after writing an exposé of the secret Swedish intelligence agency Informationsbyrån (the Information Bureau, or IB). Guillou and Bratt revealed that IB had gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be a ‘security risk’, placed spies abroad, and had broken into foreign embassies in Sweden.
Even Lisbeth Salander’s extraordinary ability to dig into the private lives of various dodgy individuals and to memorise numbers, texts and photographs are given a realistic explanation: Blomkvist figures that she has Asperger’s syndrome.
As a journalist, Blomkvist has little time for questioning who the good guys and bad guys of any drama might be. There are victims and abusers: child labourers in Vietnam and money-hungry multinationals; impoverished Eastern European girls and thuggish people-traffickers; headline-hungry reporters and human rights-upholding journalists. This was likely Larsson’s own attitude, too, considering his career as an investigator into far-right extremists. He co-founded the Swedish magazine Expo, which was modelled on the British anti-racist magazine Searchlight for which Larsson had been the Swedish correspondent.
But Salander is different. To her, a Colt Magnum is mightier than the pen. Despite her traumatic childhood and abuse at the hands of the authorities, she refuses to be a victim. She also has a strong sense of right and wrong, but does not bulk from taking violent revenge on anyone who messes with her or the few people she cares about. Perhaps she is living out the secret fantasies held by those whom she sees as ‘do-gooding’ journalists with a conscience, like Blomkvist.
While Larsson may have wanted to expose some of the illusions of the happy-go-lucky Swedish welfare state, his faith in decent protectors of Swedish ideals and tolerance shines through. The Millennium books depict a clueless police force, inept social services, a sleaze-hungry media industry, and a corrupt secret service, but the book also introduces us to plenty of characters from within these cherished Swedish institutions who live by their employers’ stated ideals. Mostly they are women.
While Stockholm is the weakest character in the book, figuring as a backdrop and giving the story some sense of orientation rather than colouring it in any meaningful way, many European tourists are now apparently visiting the Swedish capital to trace the footsteps of Larssons’s characters. There is even an official Stieg Larsson tour of the city.
Despite sidestepping the well-trodden path of previous Swedish writers who have littered their books with alcoholics and tales of personality-defining child abuse, Larsson’s own fate gives his work a rather sad air so that following his footsteps in Stockholm may, after all, feel rather melancholic. Still, he has left a great legacy, and today Swedish writers, thanks to the success of the Millennium trilogy, are sought after in bookshops around the world. And if this success can help challenge the stereotype that Sweden is a utopian social democratic state filed with buxom blondes and suicidal depressives, that will be a good thing.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
The Millennium trilogy, by Stieg Larsson, is published by Quercus. (Buy these books from Amazon(UK).)
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