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the girl with the dragon tattoo

19 december 2009

At one point in the late Stieg Larsson's hit novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one character remarks to another that serial killers are rare in Sweden. Yeah, right. The country is basically half serial killers and half victims thereof. Most of the serial killers aren't caught so much as eliminated in the natural course of serial killing by some other serial killer. I am hoping to visit Sweden for the first time next spring, and I'm looking forward to it, but seriously, the odds are about even money that I will be hideously tortured, dismembered, rearranged into a fetishistic display, and trampled by drug-crazed reindeer.

On the heels of Henning Mankell's virtuoso chronicles of Swedish serial murder, Larsson's trilogy of crime novels has become, if possible, even more famous worldwide. And it's easy to see why. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a magnetic "read," and at the same time an indicative genre fantasy for the 21st century. It's a book that manages to be hard-boiled and politically correct at the same time, without offending literary or dramatic good sense. Its plot, strictly speaking, is preposterous. But this is genre fiction. Nobody wants unpreposterousness in a good serial killer novel.

Larsson serves up sinister family secrets, vanished victims, multiple murderers, gruesome vendettas, and lunatic neo-Nazis in a high-octane brew. But he also gives us detectives that we can identify with without suspending any progressive attitudes toward gender and social justice. Hero Mikael Blomkvist is a crusading journalist whose day job involves skewering the Enrons of the Baltic. His sidekick Lisbeth Salander is a bepierced über-hacker with a photographic memory, a taste for tangy rye-bread sandwiches, and a strenuous sexual appetite. Not only do we like these good guys, but we feel good about liking them.

Compare Blomkvist and Salander to Mankell's Wallander or Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlendur, and you can see how wholesome Larsson's heroes are. If wholesome is a good adjective for a heroine who pursues miscreants vigilante-style, bashing them with golf clubs and tattooing their sins on their bellies. But her victims deserve their fate. The Swedish title of Larsson's novel, Män som hatar kvinnor, means "Men who hate women." These men meet their comeuppance from the more enigmatically styled title heroine of Reg Keeland's English translation. (Though Salander is not a girl in any sense, except that Larsson describes her as looking 15; she's actually 25, and in her quiet way is Europe's greatest detective, as well as one of the continent's top-shelf grifters.)

But the focus of the novel is more on Blomkvist than on Salander. "Kalle Blomkvist," his detractors call him, after a juvenile detective in novels by Astrid Lindgren. And here we see another of the novel's powerful appeals. Blomkvist is in his early 40s, virile, high-verbal, type-A, irresistible to a range of women from the 50-something sophisticated heiress Cecilia Vanger to the 20-something geek princess Lisbeth. But at heart, Blomkvist is Frank or Joe Hardy, Emil of Emil and the Detectives, a Boxcar Child. If Lisbeth Salander is a type of Batman, Mikael Blomkvist is a type of Encyclopedia Brown. He devours detective fiction, and solves a cold case with the aid of spreadsheets and discrepancies in old photographs.

All this excitement is expressed in prose (or at least in Keeland's English prose) that is a cross between Henning Mankell and Tom Clancy. Techno-gizmos abound and are described in loving, tech-writerly prose. Stern, unflappable agents of good and evil wend their purposeful, eminently functional paths across the rational landscapes of postmodern media and commerce. Even the novel's serial killers are optimized little machines for sating twisted compulsions and producing perfectly disappearing corpses.

The result is glorious genre fiction that will keep you up nights reading. Larsson's millions of readers, myself included, could hardly ask for anything better.

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. [Män som hatar kvinnor, 2005.] Translated by Reg Keeland. 2008. New York: Knopf, 2008.