Prior to Larsson my only familiarity with Swedish crime fiction, the TV variety, was through Wallander, and then the character was played by Kenneth Branagh. It was a while before I moved to subtitled versions which tend to be more authentic.
It was some time before I picked up the first of Larsson’s three books. All were in the house and my wife had spoken of their brilliance. I earmarked them for future reading but it was not until Mick Hall of Organised Rage said how impressed he had been with them that I decided to put my nose in for a rummage. Not a fan of Trotskyist writers Mick nevertheless thought Larsson, a Trot himself, had assembled an outstanding trilogy. My curiosity aroused, I ventured into Larsson and the literary world of the Scandinavian crime fiction genre. Now, with Larsson long behind, I have still to re-emerge. Since completing his novels the discovery has been made that he has rivals, not least of all Jussi Adler Olsen with the outstanding Mercy or an equally impressive Sissel-Jo Gazan with The Dinosaur Feather.
Every year on his birthday Henrik Vanger receives a pressed flower from the person he believes to be the killer of his niece. Harriet Vanger vanished without trace from Hedeby Island almost forty years earlier. The flowers from Australia numbered 36. Harriet had begun giving them to him at the age of 8 and they continued to arrive after she disappeared at 16. He now had 44. Her killer seemingly knew the ritual and played it out throughout the years of Harriet’s absence, the cruellest of taunts most likely. The cop Henrik Vanger calls in cannot bring closure so eventually, flush with wealth and after a complicated route, the Swedish business magnate approaches Michel Blomquist, an investigative journalist who runs Millennium Magazine. Facing imprisonment and reputational ruin the offer is a life line to the initially reluctant Blomquist. In addition to the inflated retainer he is also offered the information vital if he is to clear his name in respect of the defamation charges against him, and with it demonstrate that the business executive he allegedly defamed is as crooked as a corkscrew.
Venger fills Blomvquist in on the details of his family, many of whom could be suspects. A mysterious complex loner with a dragon tattoo teams up with him. Some patience is required initially because of the character building. Enter Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker extraordinaire. As fiery in temperament as she is ferociously intelligent, Salander's ignition of the storyline is the big bang effect and the reader is introduced to a new universe.
Salander is a woman with a difficult past, having spent much of her time in institutions where she was abused and had come to nurture a hatred of the people that ran the places. With her old state ‘guardian’ ill, she has been given a new one, Nils Bjurman, best described as a scuzzbucket. In Sweden some adults for a variety of reasons are denied autonomy and find themsleves placed under the supervision of a guardian. While Salander drew the short stick, her means of lengthening it is tattooed into the memory long after the event.
Despite the slow but never tedious start the narrative is not allowed to go flat; the steady ascent is always there. Larsson thinking ahead was sketching out the contours of his characters before giving full throttle. He would not take his foot off the pedal until the last page of the third novel. Along the way he creates an impressive narratorial dialectic between the multilayered characters.
In what amounts to a critique of violence against women in Swedish society Larsson weaves in the activities of the Swedish far right, who in real life he wielded his pen against in a struggle to expose and defeat their prejudice, often informed by Nazi ideology. When the two sleuths in the employment of Henrik Vangar discover that a large number of women had been murdered between 1949 and 1966, the year Harriet disappeared, the notion of a serial killer enters the plot. The only family member he can rule out for certain is Martin Vangar who had been stranded on the other side of a bridge in Hedeby when Harriet had gone off the radar.
The first in the Millennium trilogy underscores the power of Scandinavian crime friction. If there is anything to rival it I have yet to find it. Now I feel I am a naturalised citizen of the genre, having walked the cold but hardly mean streets of Stockholm on the Stieg Larsson guided tour accompanied by my wife. We were enthralled in the narrative and confident enough to have a debate about meaning with the tour guide. It was a bright Saturday October morning a few years back. Along the route we sampled one of the excellent coffee shops that Stockholm is renowned for. Swedes, we learned on the tour, are, per head, the world’s second highest consumers of coffee. A blend of caffeine and Larsson is a surefire means of overcoming the notcturnal impulse to sleep.
For those that worry about their computer being hacked this is not the book to read. Salander will amaze if not frighten you. If she really exists and is not a mere figment of the Larsson imagination it is to be hoped she is not in the employment of the NSA. Nothing is beyond her reach.