Sep 24, 2010 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
You probably know little about Stieg Larsson, the Swedish writer who, in his brief 50 years on this planet, evolved from science-fiction buff to journalistic activism in his fearless coverage of his native land’s white-supremacy movements. Maybe his pursuit of the latter led to his passing in 2004 from a heart attack.
Yet it’s quite likely that you know quite a lot about Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the two characters at the heart of an unforgettable trilogy of novels Larsson wrote, but never lived to see published into gigantic worldwide best-sellers.
In order, the books comprise of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. At present, I’ve raced through two of those books and, through that Kindle I just purchased, am now working on the third, eager to see how the whole thing ends.
Why the attraction? Well, it starts with the simple fact that Larsson was a fabulous writer, several cuts above the run-of-the-mill fiction that so dominates contemporary literature.
Maybe it helped that Larsson wasn’t a famous author, or even a famous writer outside of Sweden, when he wrote his books. There was no need for him to fit into a mystery formula, nor was there outside pressure to come up with product that the masses could consume.
Larsson could take his time, and he used it well to create a palate full of memorable characters, at least two dozen in the first two books alone. He also forces you to pay attention to details along the way, and readers find themselves flipping back to other parts of the books to make the connections.
Of course, it is Blomkvist and Salander at the heart of all the action, even when they’re not on the page you are reading. It all leads back to this unlikely duo.
Mikael Blomkvist is, at the start of the trilogy, a disgraced editor of a magazine called Millennium in Stockholm. He has been put in jail for libel, and the backlash threatens to sink his magazine as ad sales decline. Only by going to a remote island to solve a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of a teenager named Harriet Vanger can he find redemption.
Yet he can’t do it alone, which brings us to Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” named in all the titles. Both brilliant and troubled, Salander trusts no one in society, for reasons that become quite obvious as the stories unfold. When she teams up with Blomkvist, they face unspeakable dangers, and to reveal anything more would be saying too much.
The books touch on all kinds of subjects, from crime and punishment to the tolerance in society of unspeakably bad behavior, which people in any country, not just Sweden, can understand. That translates into electrifying material.
At the heart of why I relate so much to Larsson’s stories is, of course, the reporting aspect. Blomkvist is an idealist, fearless in his pursuit of the truth, even if it puts him at peril. He has to deal with the travails facing 21st-century journalists as they navigate through technological changes and the worry that it could all fall apart. Much of that, I can understand – except for Blomkvist being quite the ladies’ man. I can’t match that talent, ever.
It’s the idealism that allows Blomkvist to protect and defend Salander, even when the whole world appears lined up against her. That sort of courage is rarely seen in our modern media culture, where it’s easier and lazier to line up and bash the same old pi atas – and integrity often takes a backseat to ratings and profits.
Adding to this admiration is the obvious point that both Blomkvist and Salander are extremely flawed characters. There are moments, during the narrative, where you blush at their respective escapades (especially when it comes to promiscuity), but brief disgust fades, and fascination soon takes over.
In some strange way, it’s almost good that Larsson passed away and didn’t have to feel the John Grisham-like pressure to follow one blockbuster with another. The three Girl books have sold more than 22 million copies. In America, the paperbacks top the best-seller list, and they’re the top three sellers on Kindle, too.
Funny how so many creative talents, whether they are authors or musicians, see their legend grow in death far more than they ever did in life. So it is with Stieg Larsson, and while future manuscripts may lead to more books, it’s difficult to imagine them matching the quality of the first three. Sometimes quality does wins out.