Friday 29 January 2010

The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson

There is an air of mystery about the author Stieg Larsson. He was mostly known as a graphic designer and dedicated campaigner against racism and right-wing extremism. At some stage he started to write novels in his spare time after returning home from his job in the evening. He had completed the manuscripts for three novels when he suddenly died from a massive heart attack, aged just 50 years old. The books were published successively in Sweden in 2006, 07 and 08 to great acclaim and success. Since then the books have been translated into most languages, with the English translations coming out in 2008 and 2009. A Swedish company - Yellow Bird has filmed all three novels and the first one is due out in the UK in March.

The Millennium in the title for the trilogy refers to a monthly magazine of that name. The magazine, or rather, staff from the magazine are intimately involved in the main stories that make up each novel. In particular each novel features Mikael Blomquist as the main character. Blomqvist is the middle-aged publisher and co-owner of the magazine, which focuses mainly on economics and social problems. He is also the main investigative journalist and each novel is built around one of Blomqvist’s special investigations. Blomqvist is in the main a very likeable character, though he is very self obsessed and tends to give his colleagues a wide berth when he is deeply involved in an investigation. He is single, though he has an unusual long term relationship with Erika Berger who is the editor of Millennium. Though she is married, Mikael and Erika are both friends and lovers. Their relationship is well known and accepted by her husband. Despite this relationship, Mikael is open to sex with other women, something which occurs quite regularly throughout the trilogy. Blomqvist and the other members of the staff at Millennium are what provide the continuity for all three novels. However each book can be read as a stand alone novel.

The first of the trilogy is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This starts with a failed attempt by Mikael Blomqvist and Millennium magazine to expose a corrupt businessman for financial fraud. As a result Blomqvist has to go to prison. This however alerts Henrik Vanger, a retired industrialist who wants to hire Blomqvist to investigate the disappearance of his niece almost 40 years ago. Vanger promises Blomkvist the means to clear his good name as part of the payment and Blomkvist accepts. Thus begins the gradual exposure of the dark underbelly of this famous Swedish family. The title of this book in Swedish is Men who hate women, and this is a more accurate description of what the novel is about. For the Vanger family hides a very dirty secret - incest and serial sex killings. Blomqvist does of course eventually ferret all this out. Not only the mystery of the disappearance of Vanger’s niece, but he finally succeeds in exposing the financial corruption with which the novel started. And he does so with the clandestine help of the rather unusual Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Lisbeth Salander does have a dragon tattoo - and much else besides. She is a very, but very determined young woman who has suffered atrociously and brutally at the hands of her family and the Swedish care authorities, and is legally under guardianship. By the time she appears in the novel she is 24 years old, pale and very thin with dyed black hair, a dragon tattoo on her shoulder and pierced nose and eyebrows. She is also almost completely asocial. However she does some occasional investigative work for a security firm on account of her special, indeed unique skills. For Salander is a brilliant computer hacker and has a photographic memory. As a result she also gets hired by Henrik Vanger and thus begins one of the strangest duos in detective fiction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reveals what will continue to be the main themes of the whole trilogy - violence against women and the abuse of power by those in authority. This particular novel starts quite slowly, but soon gathers pace, excitement and suspense. The novel builds to a quite thrilling and violent climax when all is revealed and resolved. Very good novel.

The second novel in the series is The Girl who Played with Fire. This is the only one of the trilogy to have the same title in Swedish and in English. Perhaps because this one is in part about Salander herself. The novel opens with an update on what has happened to Salander since the conclusion of the previous novel. Now an exceedingly rich woman, as a result of her hacking skills, she has acquired a fabulous apartment in an exclusive part of Stockholm and treated herself to a boob job. She is very proud of them and her now conspicuous breasts become a recurrent, lighthearted feature of the novel.

Salander has had no subsequent contact with Blomqvist, but continues to use her hacking skills to clandestinely keep in touch with his computer. She is therefore fully aware of what new investigative lines Blomqvist and the Millennium team are involved in. However on this occasion, as the story develops she becomes not only one of the hunters, but the hunted.

For what the Millennium team are researching is sex-trafficking in Sweden and the abuse of underage girls by those in high office. Abuse by those in authority is something of which Salander has personal experience and she decides to get involved in the case - but on her own, unbeknown to Blomqvist. Indeed it is not until the very end of the novel that they meet up again in person.

It is while pursuing her investigations that we, the reader, become more aware of Salander’s own past. We find out why some people in very high positions in the state security services have taken such a personal interest in her. In particular why she was placed under guardianship. As she discovers more about her past, those in authority, including Bjurmann, her current guardian, are trying to find ways to keep her silent for ever. At this point Salander discovers a link to one of the people involved in the sex-trafficking - the hitherto mysterious Zalachenko. For some reason this Zalachenko is important and significant to Salander and not in a good way. She becomes determined to track him down. However before she can do anything three murders occur on the same night - the key Millennium researcher and his partner and Bjurmann. Salander’s fingerprints are found on the gun which was left behind.

Things move even faster after this. The police, fed false information by sources in the security services, are convinced that Salander is not just guilty, but a dangerous psychopath to boot. Salander goes underground and continues her pursuit of Zalachenko and his henchman, Niedermann, while Blomqvist, equally convinced of her innocence tries to help her. The bloody climax takes place in an isolated farmhouse on the outskirts of Gothenberg, where Salander finally confronts Zalachenko. Though bloody, it appears that nobody has actually been killed and the novel ends in complete suspense.

The third and final novel, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, takes up the story at exactly the point where the previous novel ended. Both Salander and Zalachenko are quickly transferred to hospital, with Salander in particular in a very critical condition. She was so badly injured that in fact she spends most of the novel in the hospital. Niedermann has managed to escape leaving a trail of murder and mayhem behind him. At this stage the full implications of Salander’s past emerge. And a deeply murky and nasty past it is. Due to Salander’s relationship with Zalachenko and the knowledge she has of him, she is deemed to pose a threat to Swedish security. Or at least to the members of the “Section”, a small, secret core of very nasty people who have created their very own secret network within the official secret police - Säpo. It turns out that Zalachenko was a major Soviet defector and this secret group - The Section - gave him a new identity and have sought to protect him ever since. If the Zalachenko affair was to become open to public scrutiny the members of the Section would be themselves exposed and finished. To prevent this the Section decides to try and keep Salander quiet by duping a pompous prosecutor into seeking a court order to confine her permanently to an asylum. The Swedish title for this novel - Castles in the Air get blown up - makes clear that it is the machinations of this secret group that is the main focus for the book.

Thus the novel becomes a race against time as the friends of Salander - Mikael Blomqvist, of course, and some of the more honourable members of the police forces - try to find evidence of the existence of the Section. In this they are abetted by Salander herself, who from her hospital bed is still able to carry out her famed computer hacking. At the same time the Section continues to feed the prosecutor and his team false information. Bit by bit Blomqvist and Co manage to unravel the complexities and the faces behind the Section. On the way there is much suspense and not a little violence as people involved with Zalachenko seek to settle old scores or frighten off Blomqvist.

Finally Salander gets her day in court and very soon the prosecution’s case is exposed as a fraud, and Salander is freed and no longer deemed to be in need of guardianship. There are still some lose ends to tie up, including a rather brutal and bloody confrontation between the hitherto missing Niedermann and Salander. In many ways this is very traditional morality tale - all the bad guys end up either dead or in prison. Whether the rest will live happily ever after is less clear.

Overall this is an excellent trilogy. It seems that Larsson planned to write more novels and had apparently started on the fourth volume which leaks suggest has Salander somewhere in northern Canada. However the three published novels do justify the title of a trilogy. The finale does wrap things up very satisfactorily, while leaving open the possibility of further adventures and investigations.

Though Blomqvist and Salander are the key characters, it is interesting and most unusual that apart from the first novel they hardly ever meet each other in person. The internet is their favourite, indeed sole means of communication. This of course is in keeping with Salander’s asocial personality and her deep distrust of anyone in authority. However the third novel ends on a more positive note as it looks like she is at last prepared to accept Blomqvist as a friend.

The other characters are in the main well drawn and we see them as real people with lives of their own. This is particularly true of Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s friend and occasional lover. Only the main villains seem to lack a real, complex life. Perhaps this has to do with what is clearly Larsson’s main purpose in writing the novels - namely to expose the extent of male violence against women and the abuse of power. In Larsson’s eyes the two are inextricably linked. It is noticeable that in the Millennium trilogy all the bad people are men. While some men are clearly good - Blomqvist obviously - none of the women are portrayed as bad or nasty characters. They may not all be angels, but none of the women are shown as evil. In a way this makes the novels a bit one dimensional at times. But it is the very rage that Larsson feels against male violence that gives the storylines such an edge and a real sense of plausibility.

In conclusion a word or two about the differences between the titles in the original Swedish and the English translation. This applies to the first and the last of the series. As explained above the original Swedish titles - Men who Hate Women and Castles in the Air get blown up - are more in keeping with what the two novels are about. So why did the English publishers go for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first novel and The Girl who Stirred the Hornet’s nest for the third? I can think of two justifications. Using the formula The Girl with ... or the Girl who .... emphasizes the continuity of the novels and makes it clear that this is a trilogy. While there is no doubt an artistic argument in favour of these changes the unity of the titles would also be a commercial advantage as it would make it easier for the buying public to see the connection between each novel. As the second of the Swedish novels, the one which has the same title in both editions - The Girl who Played with Fire, was already published before the first English translations, the English publishers would have been aware of this title.

The other justification seems to be purely commercial. By emphasizing the Salander character the publishers could make sure the covers featured a scantily dressed attractive looking young woman - to show off the tattoo of course. As a bit of an unreconstructed old man, I have to admit this ploy did work with me. I was attracted and intrigued by the title and the cover. If it encourages more people to read the novels then the means justify the ends? I do find the covers a bit controversial as they seem to fly in the face of what Larsson was writing about. Whatever, don’t let the titles or covers put you off reading what is a wonderful and thrilling trilogy.

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