Stieg Larsson and crime novels

This video is called The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Official Trailer.

By David Walsh in the USA:

The Stieg Larsson phenomenon

8 September 2010

Crime novels, detective stories, mysteries, come in all shapes and sizes, with varying national overtones and colorings. The best of them can entertain, but even the vast majority of those do not stay long in one’s memory—they are not challenging or complex enough. So such books can be read, forgotten, and then re-read, on the bus, on vacation, in a waiting room.

The three novels by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004 at the age of 50, published in the US as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have attracted much attention and many readers around the world.

For the English-speaking reader of a certain age any mention of Swedish crime fiction is likely to bring to mind, first of all, the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö written between 1965 and 1975 (when Wahlöö died). Prominent among them were The Man on the Balcony, The Laughing Policeman, The Abominable Man, The Locked Room, and The Terrorists.

Then there is the more recent work of Henning Mankell, best known for his series of gloomy Inspector Wallander novels, the first of which was published in 1991. Kenneth Branagh played the lead character in a six-part British television adaptation, shot in two series of three films each in 2008 and 2009.

The plot of Stieg Larsson’s novels, which he conceived of as a whole, is too sprawling to recount in detail. Two figures dominate the books: Lisbeth Salander, a young researcher and computer hacker of almost superhuman skill, with a painful history of abuse that has made her deeply mistrustful of authority, even anti-social; and middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who specializes in exposing corruption and financial swindling.

In the first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander and Blomkvist eventually join forces to solve a 40-year-old mystery and flush out a violent serial rapist and killer. In the course of the book, Salander also suffers a brutal assault from her legal guardian and revenges herself upon him in equally savage fashion, and Blomkvist gets the goods on billionaire corporate crook Hans-Erik Wennerström, who has previously inflicted a legal and professional defeat on him.

The second and third novels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which form more of a single unit, are taken up by an investigation into sex trafficking conducted for Blomkvist’s magazine; a triple murder, which Salander is accused of committing; and Salander’s attempt to settle the score with her terrifying father, a former Soviet spy and defector, and later a prominent gangster in Sweden. An important subplot involves the misdeeds of a secret unit of the Swedish security police, Säpo, which for convoluted reasons has conspired against Salander for years.

How is the immense popularity of these books to be explained? Larsson was the second best-selling author in the world in 2008, and his trilogy of novels has sold some 40 million copies to date. The Girl Who Played with Fire was the first translated work to top the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list in a quarter-century. Swedish-language films of all three books have been released, and Hollywood is planning its own versions, with Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, in a leading role.

Larsson’s books are superior to run of the mill crime fiction in a number of ways. Although somewhat farfetched, his plots are carefully planned and worked through. One feels the author has actually worked at the books, and has a purpose in mind. There is something single-minded, almost fanatical, about the construction and trajectory of the work. The result is that the reader is drawn into the story and follows it attentively. Larsson’s language, at least in translation, is not extraordinary, but it is clear, efficient, and does not get in the way.

The various Swedish crime fiction writers mentioned have one principal advantage over the majority of their US and British counterparts at least, the influence of left-wing ideas (the contradictions of which we shall return to). In general, the Swedish writers indicate a sympathy for the underdog and a hostility, or at least a critical attitude toward the powers that be. This social conviction is not the least important element in explaining their popular appeal.

We are not centrally treated in Larsson’s work, for example, to the inner lives, the everyday stresses and strains, of CIA or FBI agents, or their Swedish equivalents. Such lives presented honestly would be of interest, of course, but in contemporary thrillers these characters and their activities are, in one way or another, thoroughly sanitized and even glorified.

The villains in Larsson’s novels are individuals whom wide layers of the population instinctively consider to be villainous: corporate directors, fascist sympathizers, military spies, secret policemen, gangsters, corrupt lawyers and psychiatrists, etc. The heroes are crusading, relentless journalists and researchers, dedicated to exposing wrongdoing at the top of society. Blomkvist is a likeable figure and Salander, when she is not inflicting punishment on other people, has her intriguing and even sympathetic side.

DVD reviews of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Kill Bill and female violence at the movies — good or bad? Here.

Stieg Larsson’s hard-hitting novel, titled Man som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”) in Swedish, was titled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English translation — possibly a subtle indication of the publisher’s discomfort with the strong women’s liberation message contained in it: here.

List of the most ‘Macho’ women in films: here.

Sweden after the 2010 elections: here.

8 thoughts on “Stieg Larsson and crime novels

  1. Hi Dave, thanks for commenting. I agree that WSWS articles are often marred by “we are-so-friggin-right” sentences; like in the latter part of this review. That latter part, not reproduced in this blog, has a tendency to depict Trotsky as the supreme authority on everything. However, I do agree at least somewhat with Walsh’s criticism of Larsson’s books depicting characters as either heroes or villains, not as complex round characters; and a tendency to depict the solution for crime as violent retribution against individuals, rather than fundamental social change.


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