THE PROFOUND PRESCIENCE OF STIEG LARSSON
by Dan Burstein
Most recent crime novels don’t call out to be read a second time for at least a few years, if ever. But in the case of the Millennium trilogy, I couldn’t wait. There’s so much in Stieg Larsson’s books that, like a good film you immediately want to see again, and in which you “see so much more” the second time around, they proved even more interesting to me on the second read than they were when I rushed through them the first time, compelled along by the plot, the perils, and the cliffhangers. Taking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest together as the single whole trilogy that they compose, you can see that just below the surface of potboiler action there lie deep veins of Stieg Larsson’s cosmology. Lisbeth and Blomkvist walk the streets of Stockholm engaged in the plot of the book, while just beneath them, like the city’s vast tunnelbana metro system, Larsson elaborates, argues, and explores his social, political, moral, technological, economic, and psychological themes. His early-twenty-first-century critique of the world as we know it, as well as his vision for changing it, is interlaced with his plot. His worldview is there to reflect on, debate, and learn from—or not—at the reader’s discretion (although it occasionally surfaces in the reader’s face with a little too much didacticism). The best reviews of the Millennium trilogy highlight the breadth of Larsson’s vision. Writing in the Washington Post in May 2010, just after the publication of Hornet’s Nest, Patrick Anderson wondered out loud how these books, by an obscure and now deceased Swedish writer, who had never published much fiction before, came to capture the attention of the world. Arguing that, “The trilogy ranks among those novels that expand the horizons of popular fiction,” Anderson offered several reasons for the author’s posthumous success:
The most obvious is the brilliance of Larsson’s narrative. It’s a rich, exciting, suspenseful story, with a huge cast, and involves us deeply in Lisbeth’s fate, even as it carries us into all levels of Swedish society.
Another reason for the trilogy’s success is its political message. There are neo-Nazis, criminals and corporate villains in these books, but finally the enemy is corrupt government officials who wage war not only on individuals but on democracy itself. Readers throughout the world have recognized that rogue elements of government do operate in secret. To some degree, Larsson based his plot on real scandals in his own country, but the dangers he exposes are universal … .
The third reason, Anderson hypothesized, is the passionate attack on sexism.
All this—the political honesty, the rage at sexism, the suspense, the overpowering narrative, the focus on modern sexual mores, the sexual tension between Mikael and Lisbeth—has made the Millennium trilogy … not only a runaway commercial success but perhaps the best, most broadly focused examination of modern politics in popular fiction (emphasis added) … . To have written these three novels may have killed Larsson, but he left a monument behind, a modern masterpiece.
Like a twenty-first-century version of the best Norse sagas, Larsson’s tales are infinitely complex and feature a multiplicity of characters, plots, and subplots. Indeed, a family tree of the fictional Vanger family (worthy of a reader’s guide to a Tolstoy novel) is depicted in Tattoo to help keep all the players straight. But in addition to their plots, subplots, and clever mixture of crime and thriller genres, the books also tackle many real-world themes. Here are some of the most important ones.
Men Who Hate Women
Stieg Larsson’s stated intention was to call all three books Men Who Hate Women and then give each volume of the trilogy a relevant subtitle. As we know from published correspondence, Norstedts, the Swedish publisher, lobbied him to change this title, but he was insistent on it. In fact, he told his editors in essence that they could change many things about the books in editing, but not the title. The first book was published in Sweden accordingly. But the U.K. publisher who acquired the English-language publication rights after Larsson’s death (MacLehose/Quercus) changed the title to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In doing so, they made a brilliant commercial decision. But at the same time undercut the key statement the author was trying to make.
Larsson is often described as a feminist; Eva Gabrielsson, his partner in life, said he described himself that way ever since she first met him as a teenager in the early 1970s. But his feminism was a different, more political, and more passionate feminism than what most readers would think of as a modern male who calls himself a feminist. In the first place, he dared to paint a detailed, thorough, and hyperrealistic picture of the pervasiveness of violence, abuse, rape, and murder of women. He attacked Sweden’s sacred cow of its self-image and its complacent pride in its gender-equalizing achievements. Yes, almost half the Parliament is female and yes, huge progress has been made in empowering women over the last several decades. But Larsson refused to accept the general progress in society as a reason not to excoriate that society’s deficiencies. He tracked numerous cases of women beaten, brutalized, raped, murdered, and systematically denied their rights and the protection of the state even in genteel Sweden. Several well-known real-life cases are mirrored in the plots of his books.
We don’t know what Stieg Larsson would have thought if he had lived to learn about Göran Lindberg, but let’s just say when I read about this case in the summer of 2010, I thought I had fallen headfirst into a Larsson novel. Tragically, it was a true story. A former police chief and director of the Swedish National Police Academy, Lindberg presented himself as the consummate supporter of female members of the police force. He lectured and convened workshops designed to raise male policemen’s consciousness about working with their female partners, prevent sexual harassment, and make it easier for women to progress through police ranks. But when he was arrested in 2010, it was reported that even while he had been acting as such an enlightened figure, he had been a serial rapist (including raping a seventeen-year-old girl) and had been involved in procuring, prostitution, and various kinds of dehumanizing sexual acts with numerous women.
Larsson wanted us to “get it” that people like Lindberg are not all that unusual in our cultures. The amount of abuse and violence that takes place is much greater than what is reported; the conviction percentages for the crimes that are reported are way too low; and the jail sentences are way too short and trivial. There was no condescension or do-gooding in Larsson’s approach to feminism. He wanted readers to be uncomfortable. He wanted us to experience, even for just a brief moment, the brutalization and suffering faced by women who are violated and abused.
Stieg Larsson wanted to challenge us: how often do we see a horrific, gruesome story on TV about a serial rapist or killer, about a girl held hostage for years, about the operations of a sex-trafficking ring? Why don’t we connect the dots? Our culture becomes fascinated with tawdry tabloid stories about famous and powerful men who become involved with prostitutes and seamy relationships, or who abuse the women they live with. Whether it’s Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Senator David Vitter, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or O. J. Simpson, we profess shock and decry the specific incidents, but we don’t face up to the pattern.
While I was researching this book, I came across a New York Times report on sex trafficking in the middle of Manhattan. “Americans tend to associate ‘modern slavery’ with illiterate girls in India or Cambodia. Yet there I was the other day, interviewing a college graduate who says she spent three years t...