Thriller with a radical message

April 15, 2010

Tristan Brosnan looks at the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy"--and why millions are finding his characters and plots so compelling.

"EIGHTEEN PERCENT of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."

This is the opening to the first part of Stieg Larsson's bestselling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, (originally published in Sweden as Men Who Hate Women).

Followed by two other books, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the "Millenium Trilogy" (as the three books are known), continues to dominate best-seller lists. A Swedish film of the first book was recently released, and plans for an American version are in the works.

Much has been written about the unfortunate demise of Larsson. The author passed away from a heart attack in 2004 just a year before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released and became a worldwide hit. Like Mikael Blomkvist, a character in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson, too, was a journalist and muckraker of sorts.

He was also a committed socialist. Larsson was once editor of Fjärde Internationalen, a socialist journal printed by the Swedish section of the Trotskyist Fourth International and an activist with the "Kommunistiska Arbetareförbundet" (Communist Workers League).

Author Stieg Larrson
Author Stieg Larrson

As a journalist and activist, Larsson began writing for Searchlight, a British anti-fascist magazine that tracked and exposed the rise of the white power movement and the British National Party in Britain. Working for Searchlight led him to help found the Expo Foundation in the mid-1990s, which, according to its Web site, "was established in order to counteract the growth of the extreme right and the white power-culture in schools and among young people."

As a result of his work documenting and exposing fascism and the radical right, Larsson was faced with constant death threats and was forced to take extreme precautions--including never marrying his partner of decades because, under Swedish law, married couples are required to make their addresses public.

It was in Larsson's spare time that he began writing the Millennium Trilogy. Often times, he would return from long workdays unable to sleep, and he would spend much of the night writing.

EACH OF the four parts of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lists a startling fact that illuminates the violence that is committed against women in Sweden. With its strong female character, Lisbeth Salander--who is both a victim and a heroine--and its biting social commentary on corporate corruption and violence against women, it's no surprise that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has sold over 27 million copies worldwide.

Much of the book's appeal centers around the gripping murder mystery at the heart of the novel and the duo attempting to solve the crime: rebel computer hacker and security expert Salander--who is the girl with the dragon tattoo--and muckraking, corporate watchdog journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Blomkvist--the muckraking corporate journalist, publisher, and part owner of Millennium magazine--was most probably modeled after Larsson himself and his work with the anti-fascist Expo magazine.

Larsson's voice emerges in Blomkvist when he says, "A bank director who blows millions on foolhardy speculations should not keep his job. A managing director who plays shell company games should do time. A slum landlord who forces young people to pay through the nose and under the table for a one-room apartment with shared toilet should be hung out to dry."

Blomkvist's career as a corporate journalist is woven nicely into the main plot of the novel--the disappearance of Harriet Vanger. Henrik Vanger the elderly former CEO of the declining Vanger Corporation hires Blomkvist and Salander to unearth the truth about the disappearance of Vanger, his niece, that has haunted him for decades.

Many book and movie reviews have claimed that both Salander and Blomkvist are simple stock characters. A New York Times review of the movie went so far as to say:

From the way that most people look at the inked, pierced form of Lisbeth Salander, the main attraction in the movie adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon might even think that our girl had a swastika stamped on her forehead rather than a few modest rings hooked through her nose--you know, like a cow ready for market or, given the murderous milieu, slaughter.

According to this review, literature and film should be overflowing with stock punk-nazi characters with swastikas stamped on their foreheads, but really, where are these characters? This claim also mocks Larsson's anti-fascist legacy.

But Lisbeth Salander is anything but a stock character. In both the novel and the movie, Salander closes herself off from her emotions and builds a wall of resistance to the hostile outside world of aggressive, violent men. Larsson drops hints that her mysterious childhood was horrible and traumatic, and that her response was to become introverted and anti-social.

But she also finds herself drawn closer and closer to Blomkvist, who becomes one of her few friends. She's had to fight against so much of the world, that her personality has come to reflect her alienation from it. As Larsson wrote in the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, "Salander was the woman who hated men who hate women."

The characters of Salander and Blomkvist make a fairly typical murder mystery novel into a creative and pulling story; they're both easy to relate to, but surprisingly, distant.

Similar to horror movies, crime fiction and thrillers often portray some of the most cruel and sadistic aspects of capitalist society--human beings murdering, kidnapping, raping and torturing other human beings. They are dark mirrors reflecting the brutality humans are capable of, whether it reflects, as in the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, physical violence against women, or the violence of corporations supporting arms and drugs trafficking, prostitution and wars for profit.

But Larsson has created a piece of crime fiction that is more than just a CSI Miami episode. He has shown that art must not simply be the whimper of the oppressed, but that it can be an expression of resistance, however individual--and that corporate criminals are just as guilty as men who beat women.

Millions of people around the world have identified with Larsson's radical, feminist heroes, and in his own story, Larsson, too, was an anti-fascist, feminist hero.

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