I watched the first part of Stieg Larsson’s Milennium trilogy; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in movie form last week, and was seriously impressed. The next day I went out to buy the two sequels, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and finished them both in less than a week- despite their enormous size of over 700 pages each.
They’re fast-paced investigative thrillers set in Sweden, starring a philandering reporter called Mikael Blomkvist and a seriously screwed-up hacker called Lisbeth Salander, who team up to uncover abominable acts of violence against women committed in the past. The success of the books lies in making us furious about these outrageous acts, making us want to step in and strangle the violators ourselves. This fury drives us rampaging towards the end, hoping for the balance to be reset in a moment of cathartic and bloody revenge.
For the English translation two of the books were re-titled, borrowing The Girl who… motif from the second book, which kept its title intact. The first was originally titled Men who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor), and that’s almost exclusively what they’re about, violence and hatred towards women expressed in many different ways. You’ll probably be disturbed by some of the scenes in these books. There is just a lot of murder, rape, and violence. There’s a high incidence of pejoratives like bitch, whore, etc…
Lisbeth Salander is what makes it all manageable, though. She is a victim, but she doesn’t have the mentality of one. On the contrary, she is a bad-ass. Despite all the awful stuff she went through in life, she has never quit, and never had her spirit broken, and that makes her lethal. She doesn’t follow social conventions, and thinks nothing of taking people out who get in her way.
Mikael Blomkvist is a pudgy old dude by comparison, useless in a fight, with no cut-throat edge, except for in his reporting. In that he is a star, feared by the establishment for his ability to bring the corrupt tumbling down from their high perches in infamous exposes. He’s also a total player, sleeping around freely but with no sense of exploitation about him. All the women he hooks up with know what he’s like. He tells them what he’s like. Is it his fault they fall in love with him?
It’s interesting to think about Blomkvist as an exception to the themes of Men who Hate Women. He hurts a lot of women with his cavalier attitude to love and relationships, but that’s clearly not his intention. His crime seems to be one of ignorance- he doesn’t get it that he’s a serial heart-breaker. In the morality of the Millennium books, that’s OK. And if we think about it, we’d proably have to agree. If he was going around having secret wives and families in different towns, lying to each of them, that would be bad. But he’s totally up front about all his relations. He sleeps with his editor, even though she’s married, and her husband knows about it and gives his consent. It’s weird, but also it’s hard to be mad at him when he’s so earnest and honest.
One of the beauties of the Millennium trilogy is the way everything is connected. Things that happen in book 1 will come to have much greater importance in books 2 and 3. There are so many plot threads set up, so many bad guys introduced, that it seems like Stieg Larsson could have gone on writing Salander books endlessly. I read that he had 10 books sketched out in all. Unfortunately he died in 2004, with only the first three completed. There’s been talk of his partner finishing up the fourth (of which he wrote about two thirds), and of someone possibly writing the fifth and sixth from outline, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The story begins with Salander under guardianship. She has been declared incompetent and unable to manage her own affairs. This puts her in a situation of powerlessness, which you can imagine she despises. Blomkvist starts out in trouble for publishing a false expose, and banishes himself to some cold hinterland where he gets stuck into an investigation of a 40-year old murder for an eccentric billionaire. Salander gets pulled into the chase, and things develop from there. Books 2 and 3 both pick up immediately after the previous book left off, and push the story both forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, as their current enemies plot for the future and they dig into the past for answers.
They’re great books, and I have only a few gripes.
One- Too many names. There are a lot of characters, and many of those characters have first, last, and nicknames, and are referred to by all of them variously. Also it’s hard to know with Swedish names if they’re female of male. For a long time I thought Kalle was a diferent person, but no, it’s one of Blomkvist’s nicknames. The other names he goes by are Mikael and Micke. His editor Erika sometimes goes by Berger or Ricky. Plus many Swedish names sound similar, or are quite common so are repeated. There were multiple Nils’, Eriksson’s, along with Niederman’s and Niemenin’s, Sonny’s and Sondheim’s, and so forth. After a while I stopped trying to keep track of all but the most important ones. Perhaps if I’d read the first book though (instead of watching the movie) this would have been less of a problem.
Two- So much hatred? I got a bit suspicious about the large proportion of men who hate women in the books. So many of them think in terms of bitch and whore. Perhaps this is real life, or real life in Sweden, but it seemed like a lot to me.
Three- Slow pace. A final gripe would be how the books can sometimes be quite slow. We get into the minutiae of how each investigation is proceeding, who is buying the coffee, who is taking the photos, who is sleeping now and who is awake, who is reading what magazine and report, and who wrote it. At times the books feel a lot like a diary. There are large chunks of book 2 where Salander is waking up, going to buy Billy’s Pan Pizza, reading some stuff on the Internet, then going back to sleep. Nothing happens. In can be frustrating, and tempted me to skip ahead.
On the whole, great books. I read that all of them have already been made into Swedish movies, with 2 and 3 released on Swedish TV. I’ll go look for them now.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- The movie was 5 stars.
The Girl who Played with Fire – 4 stars for a lot of slow bits in the middle.
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest– 5 stars for great denouement and catharsis.