Most people reading this review will probably have heard of or read the three books by Steig Larsson in the Millenium series, or seen one or more of the films based on them. Not so well known is the fact that the author was a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International and sometime editor of their paper. His politics, especially his work on neo-Nazi and right wing political groups in Sweden led him to become the Swedish correspondent for the British journal Searchlight.
His politics also informed these detective novels. The classic form of the detective or crime novel centres on one or two people, usually in the city. The protaganist is (nearly always) a man, with women playing a subordinate or victim’s roles. By contrast Larsson wanted to integrate crime into the society that produced it and in the process shows how bourgeois society is not only prone to right-wing solutions but that there are hidden connections between big business, criminality, the judiciary and the secret state.
In the process he also exposes the oppression of women in such a state. He says,‘When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies, it’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.’ In fact the original title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men who Hate Women.
The theme of women’s oppression and violence against women and how they respond is embodied in the figure of Lisbeth Salander. Personal experience of domestic and state sexual and physical abuse has led her to alienation and paranoia and the use of extreme violence when necessary. She has a morality that is outside bourgeois norms, taking the implementation of justice into her own hands because she is rightly suspicious of all state institutions. Her character was influenced by the Swedish children’s stories of Pippi Longstocking. A young girl with enormous strength, Pippi lives in a world independent of adults and does exactly as she likes. Larsson asks himself ‘What would she be like as an adult?’ and comes up with Salander.
While many detectives are male, Larsson’s books reverse the gender stereotypes. The central male character is Blomkvist, an investigative journalist working for the magazine Millenium – hence the title. He is a patient investigator of the underbelly of Swedish society, perhaps based on Larsson himself. While he is a well-known journalist in Swedish society, it is Salander who discovers things, often by computer hacking, that reveal what is really going on – whether in the family and big business in the first book, the criminal underworld with police complicity in the second, or the relations between these and the secret state in the third. Moreover, she saves Blomkvist’s life as well as carrying out retribution on men who have attacked her. But Larsson also reveals her capacity for human sympathy with people she decides she can trust, her girlfriend Mimi and in the end Blomkvist himself.
Salander is not the only independent and strong female character in the books. The editor of Millenium is Erica Berger, also Blomkvsit’s long-term lover, Inspector Sonja Modig, a policewoman and Annika Giannini the sister of Blomkvist, a lawyer specialising in domestic violence who takes on the defence of Salander.
As many have pointed out stories of crime and detection developed in the mid-nineteenth century with works by Edgar Alan Poe and in France with Alexandre Dumas. The modern cities of London, Paris and Berlin were the landscapes for stories of criminal fantasy and surveillance. The theme was taken up in Germany in the 1920s by the analytical writings of Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht whose book Primer for City Dwellers, of 1926 has the motto, ‘Efface your traces!’ Translated into the computer dominated twenty-first century this describes Salander’s capacity to expose the secrets of Swedish society while at the same time remaining undetected. In doing so the attempt by the different elements of the state to cover their own traces is forestalled. But when the forces ranged against her catch up she is not afraid to respond with extreme violence.
The success of the novels selling 27 million copies in 41 countries and of the films has led Hollywood to wake up to their commercial potential. Daniel Craig is Blomkvist in the newest version to come out. Make sure you see the Swedish version of these films. Produced by Yellow Bird who also made the Wallander series on BBC4, Noomi Rapace is splendid as Salander as is Michael Nyquist as Blomkvist. But read the books first and in the right order. As often happens several threads of the story get left out in the adaptation and while you will discover who did what to whom and why by watching the films, the books will lose their suspense if you know these facts already!