“It’s this integration of the mundane and the mythic that enables the trilogy to hold its readers in thrall,” explains Salon.com’s Laura Miller in Why We Can’t Get Enough of Stieg Larsson’s Hacker Heroine. I had picked up at the library the first book of the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, knowing nothing about it except that people kept talking about it, and found it as enthralling as did Miller and apparently tens of millions of other people. Though not exactly edifying. It’s a guilty pleasure.
The “girl” of the titles is a fascinating character, because you do not know why she acts as she does, and even the “back story” as it emerges doesn’t really explain her. That explains much of the book’s appeal. That she’s clearly a victim, whatever the causes, and a fragile young woman for whom one naturally pulls is also part of its appeal. That she’s all that and amazingly smart, tough, and successful just increases the appeal.
But the other main character, a crusading journalist, is just as interesting to me, because he is curiously flat for a hero. He’s the good guy, and apparently represents the author’s idea of virtue, but there is in him no moral there there. He takes on corrupt businessmen out of some sense of morality, but what that is, is not at all clear from the first two books. He treats sex merely as recreation, which human disconnection symbolizes much about his view of things, though for the author this is presumably normal. (He is Swedish.)
The journalist lacks any clear principles and any clear end to his actions. He lacks even the marxist’s eschatological drive that for other leftists provides both. He seems offended by oppression not with the traditional moral passion and indignation, but in the way one might be offended by a dirty subway car. As I say, he is a curiously flat, for an heroic crusading journalist.
If this journalist represents Larsson’s idea of the hope for Sweden, Sweden is doomed. Which may be the books’ lesson, if an unintended one. The books have gone beyond the tradition of Swedish left-wing crime novels, writes Andrew Brown in We’re All Swedes Now.
From once offering an attack on the society — “It is not enough to be a sadistic serial killer: You have to vote conservative as well” — it now expresses “the overwhelming loss of confidence in the future, and in the state.” Writing in Foreign Policy, he concludes:
Perhaps this moralism helps explain why Swedes were always much less secular than they appeared to be, even to themselves. Anything but the most notional Christianity had more or less died out among the middle classes by the 1980s, and the Swedish national church was disestablished at the millennium.
Instead of imbibing myths about first-century Palestine, the people took in sermons about social progress and its culmination in 20th-century Sweden. To some extent, those new myths were shared with the whole Western world. But it is in Sweden that their loss is most keenly felt, and the great efflorescence of dystopian crime fiction in the country is perhaps an expression of this loss.