Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Stieg Larsson: Scandinavian crime wave strikes again!

I'm finally getting around to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (more about that title in a minute). In addition to being a great read (even at 533 pages in English translation, the story flows effortlessly forward), Stieg Larsson's novel is self-consciously a "text" in the semiotic sense (and it's a tribute to the author's skills that it's "text-ness" is never a burden to the reader). What I mean is that the references to literature (specifically crime literature) abound in particularly appropriate ways (more appropriate and effective than the tossed-off references or tributes common in Ken Bruen's novels). The main character in this book (the first of what is called the Millennium trilogy) is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (publisher of Millennium magazine, hence the series title): after Blomkvist achieves notoriety by solving a series of daring robberies, he is inevitably referred to by a witty reporter as "Kalle Blomkvist," a nickname he hates. The reference is a bit lost on American readers, since the title character's name was changed in translations of Astrid Lindgren's boy-detective novels (Kalle Blomkvist in the original, Bill Bergson in translation). The reference is a sly clue to the reader about the author's approach, as well as a signal to watch what the reporter is reading: He's attracted to various pulp writers, and the nature of those books sometimes signals a shift in the narrative. When the story shifts from the investigation of a family's sordid past to the possible discovery of a ruthless serial killer, Blomkvist has gone from a Sue Grafton detective story to a Val McDermid serial killer novel (and a bloody one at that). About that title in English: Like Astrid Lindgren's English-language publishers, Maclehose Press has changed things around. The original Swedish title, literally translated, means "Men Who Hate Women." The current title in English, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, refers to the other chief character (and a more central character in later episodes), Lisbeth Salander, but the English title says little about the book itself. Perhaps a clue is the title of the second book in the trilogy, which Maclehose is reportedly leaving alone, in a literal translation: The Girl Who Played with Fire. Are they looking for a self-conscious "series" title? Will the third volume be called "The Girl Who Knew Too Much," or something like that? In any case, Salander is a fascinating character, an unsocialized "wild child" something like Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory (but Salander is actually more believable and more interesting, though prodigiously talented and anti-social in similar ways). Crime novels have certainly gotten longer and fuller than in the classic days of Simenon and early McBain, but there are only a few crime novels that can sustain the length that Larsson does (and the sequels are apparently even longer): one other who does manage the trick is Jo Nesbø of Norway (what is it about the Scandinavians--rapidly catching up in numbers of books and numbers of pages after a late start in the international crime stakes). Larsson and Nesbø share the talent for writing a long novel that stays interesting all the way through, and a few other qualities, despite differences. Larsson's "detective" in this novel is a disgraced reporter (rather than a disgraced cop), but without the painful emotional history of Nesbø's Harry Hole. And Hole carries the novels almost single-handedly (at least in terms of running characters), whereas Larsson focuses on a pair of central characters. But Larsson is evidently performing a "deconstruction" or survey of crime fiction: in addition to Blomkvist's reading matter and his name, the three novels evidently take different models from within the genre (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is along that Grafton-McDermid-O'Connell spectrum), and at least one of the later books seems to be more of a thriller, political and otherwise. It's easy to see why the Millennium trilogy is a big hit in Sweden, and I'll be waiting impatiently for the final two volumes (final because Larsson died before the series achieved its current fame). I may return to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for another comment or two, but that's all for now--who else has read it? Does anyone have any comments?


Ali Karim said...

Hi - another fan of Larsson, I loved it as well, more info here :-






Reg said...

Hi Glenn, This is Reg, the translator, and thank you for the nice review. In my estimation the first book just gets you started -- the second and third really develop the Lisbeth Salander character and her convoluted history. I think she emerges as one of the most interesting anti-heroines in crime fiction. And yes, the elements of thriller-dom do increase in the later books. You have a treat in store!

I recently went through the hot keys I used while translating this series, and recalling the wealth of characters and the exciting incidents they were involved in reminded me what solid books these are. It's a shame that Larsson didn't live to write the remaining 7 volumes he had planned.

And yes, I'm American, but the book will be available in print only in its present British incarnation. I'd be happy to answer any questions fellow bloggers might have. Watch for the movies...

Anonymous said...

Wow, seven more volumes!
I loved this book and reviewed it on Euro Crime to coincide with UK publication.
I think it is of an ilk with Asa Larsson's (no relation, presumably) Sun Storm - which if you haven't read, I highly recommend. It is shorter ;-), and although obviously it is a very different book in one sense, in another it is similar as it covers the same themes (for Lise read Rebeka) and so well conveys the same sense of pain and redemption (almost).
I also think there are strong similarlities with Lisa Marklund, whom I know you have read, Glenn-- although Marklund is a more muscular writer not given to as much angst as the two Larssons.
best wishes

Anonymous said...

Sorry, correction, for I should have written Lisebeth not Lise. The characters of Lisebeth and Rebecka are different but they share some of the same experiences and have a similarly "off major" (to quote John Harvey) response to their circumstances.

Reg said...

Hi Petrona, considering that Larsson is about as common as Smith in Sweden, as Svensson is to Jones, they're probably not related.

I look forward to reading Åsa Larsson (and a bunch of other authors my colleagues are translating) as soon as I get a break from Camilla Läckberg's series -- first one is THE ICE PRINCESS, out in the UK in April, I believe. A whole different sort of police procedural set in Fjällbacka, a small town on the Swedish west coast.

A great author you shouldn't miss is Jo Nesbø from Norway, translated by the excellent Don Bartlett.

Lucas said...

What a great book this was. I was in Sweden recently and thought that Stieg Larsson had written many more than three books. That's how much display space was given to him! In any case, this is a must-read. I'm sad for myself and mystery fans that we only have these three books to read from this incredibly talented writer.

Reg said...

Hi Lucas,

At least they're long and meaty!

For those who haven't been reading the Swedish papers online, there was a huge legal hassle over Stieg's laptop, which apparently contained a first draft of a 4th novel. He and his longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson of some 32 years had been working on them together, and after his death his "estranged" brother and father stepped into the picture and apparently nabbed all the rights for themselves. Because of death threats Stieg had received from neo-nazi groups for his hard-hitting investigative reporting for Expo magazine (the model for Millennium), he and his partner never got married, nor did Stieg apparently leave a will. Thus leaving her out in the cold so far when it comes to the mega-royalties involved with this series. It's in the hands of the lawyers now. That's the last I've read on that topic. Stay tuned for further developments.

See more info in English at:


and in Swedish (and some English):




Anonymous said...

From the moment I picked up Stieg Larsson's first book, I haven't stopped talking to people about it. I am Swedish, live in England and I am so happy that English speaking people now can look forward to , for me, the best 3 books I have ever read. So sad we have no more to look forward to, us Swedes, I mean. Gunnel in Maidenhead