In his 2001 article, “Scandinavian Crime Novels: Too Much Angst and Not Enough Entertainment?” author Bo Tao Michaëlis relates an American publisher friend’s understanding of Scandinavian crime novels:
You [Scandinavians] contrive to express this simultaneously social and existential anxiety in your crime novels in such a way that it . . . is self-critical, self-tormenting even . . . In your world, the typical crime novel detective is . . . not happy, and all the time his job makes him aware of the fact that something is rotten in your Scandinavian welfare societies.
The publisher (while perhaps simplifying matters a bit) may as well have been referring specifically to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For although it does not fit the traditional detective novel format—dizzily combining the incisive social commentary of a political thriller and the ‘whodunit’ hermetic charms of And Then There Were None—it is a novel that is deeply and earnestly concerned with identifying social injustice and—if only vicariously—enacting cold and calculated retribution on those found to be at fault.
Before suffering a fatal heart-attack at the age of 50, Larsson made a name for himself as the journalistic force behind Expo, a magazine dedicated to ferreting out racist, anti-democratic, and extreme right-wing tendencies in Swedish society. Some of these concerns work themselves into Dragon Tattoo—one of the subplots focuses on a family’s deep involvement in the Swedish Nazi movement—but the narrative sets its sights on two primary evils: white collar corruption and malignant, unredressed sexual abuses suffered by women.
Each of these issues could easily be the subject of its own book, but Larsson goes to great lengths to illustrate how both are a product of the same well-meaning, but inadequate society. Larsson paints Swedish society as a place where “financial reporters treated mediocre financial whelps like rock stars” and violent crimes against women frequently go almost completely unnoticed and unpunished. One woman is victimized by family members for decades right under the watchful gaze of her guardian. Another—a former psychiatric patient and ward of the state—is repeatedly abused by her government-appointed trustee. (It bears noting that the novel’s original title—Men Who Hate Women—was far more pointed about these concerns.)
Something is, it seems, certainly rotten in the welfare state. And Larsson responds to his dismal view by producing two anti-heroes uniquely equipped to handle and redress the wrongs they witness occurring around them. There’s Mikael Blomkvist, the dashing and dogged financial reporter who finds himself on the losing end of a libel trial against a powerful and corrupt financier. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed hacker genius whose ability to recover from repeated trauma and resourcefulness make her the novel’s unabashed figure of promise and redemption.
But while both Blomkvist and Salander play to a reader’s (and perhaps especially an American reader’s) sense of karmic justice—stalking, beating, exposing, and draining the bank accounts of the novel’s multitudinous villains—they, and Salander especially, often reveal themselves to be more caricatures than fully realized characters. Blomkvist remains so fully focused on his original intent to take down his great corporate nemesis, that he seems almost unaffected by the 40-year spree of serial murders that he uncovers and the horrendous ordeal that he goes through at the hands of the killer himself. Salander, one of the novel’s most victimized characters, meets her attackers with one-liners and rejects assistance from the police (“visor-clad brutes”) and women’s crisis centers because they “existed for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim.” She’s certainly a powerful character, but her stoicism reads as a lack of emotional depth, and Larsson does her an injustice by not allowing her to experience genuine suffering at any point in the novel.
A compelling, complicated, and even epic read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkable novel, but one which ultimately resigns itself to a society which will always be blind to the evils beneath its surface, and where vigilantism is one’s only hope for justice.
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