The kindness of witches

Stieg Larsson’s fiction replaces Sweden’s socialist dream with an individualist nightmare. Is this what has made him the country’s biggest literary phenomenon?
November 18, 2009
A Swat team on the G4S cash depot in Stockhold, 23rd September 2009, after a helicopter was used to rob the facility

The Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest By Stieg Larsson (Quercus)

What is it about crime in Sweden? The success of writers like Henning Mankell and now Stieg Larsson has clearly established a Scandinavia of the mind which is no more anchored to geography than Bohemia. It is the modern equivalent of the library in the country house of classic English detective stories: the conventional stage in which to find corpses surrounded by a selection of intriguing and sinister eccentrics. It has almost nothing to do with the criminality of the real country which has an entirely different look, both flatter and more dramatic.

On 23rd September this year, an armed gang landed a stolen helicopter on the roof of a secure G4S warehouse in the suburbs of Stockholm: they broke their way in through the skylight, and stole millions of pounds worth of banknotes (the Swat inspection of the scene afterwards is pictured, left). The police arrived by car at the foot of the building in time to film the helicopter as the gang made its getaway, but did not otherwise interfere. Although the Stockholm police have a helicopter at their disposal, it had been cunningly disabled by someone who left a large parcel, clearly labelled “bomb,” in the hangar. It was three hours before the police established that this was a hoax, and in that time no one would take the helicopter up.

Comically incompetent policemen have their place in Swedish crime fiction, too. But in Stieg Larsson’s millennium trilogy, which has sold more than 20m copies in Europe alone and been translated into more than 30 languages (a success that Larsson, who died in 2004, saw nothing of) incompetence has been carried to its logical conclusion and none of the police are any use at all, until one of them starts to sleep with the hero. The crimes are all solved by amateurs, and usually the punishment is dealt out by amateurs too. When Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of these novels, is raped, she does not go to the police, but instead returns to the rapist, stuns him with a Taser, tortures him a bit, tells him she will kill him if he ever goes near a woman again and then tattoos his stomach crudely and painfully with the message “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST.” He is also a lawyer.

Salander, on the other hand, is a witch, and that is I think the secret of the novels’ extraordinary popularity. Her magic is known as “hacking” in the books, but it has nothing much to do with real technology. Her gadgets give her magical powers. She can read anyone’s thoughts off their hard disks, and listen to anyone’s conversations from their email or phones. The untraceable theft of a few hundred million dollars is the work of a couple of weeks. Even lying paralysed in bed with a bullet hole in her brain, she is able to communicate with her familiars all around the world and to discover and foil the villains.

All blockbuster novels of this sort are fantasies in which the heroes acquire superpowers; Larsson’s originality was to discover a new fantasy. His hero, meanwhile, is the left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes the magazine Millennium (giving the trilogy its title) and who teams up with Salander to form an investigative duo. Blomkvist has only one rather ordinary superpower: any interesting woman to whom he talks for longer than about half an hour goes to bed with him. Otherwise, he is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and dedicated to the cause of truth: Philip Marlowe without the failures or the inner life.

Salander is much more interesting. Her superpowers are balanced by the fact that she is legally incompetent. At the start of the story she is unable even to draw cheques on her own bank account. She is a skinny misfit punk, a woman almost without friends and entirely without manners. She is, in fact, James Bond squeezed into the body of a weak and apparently feeble woman: the doomed, romantic outsider who has powers to make society quake. What’s original is that this figure, familiar from the introspection of any teenage boy, should here be incarnated as a woman.

The great weakness of these books as thrillers is that the last quarter of each volume is devoted entirely to wish fulfilment. It’s not enough for the journalist to have solved a murder case: he has also to expose his enemy, the crooked businessman, in a bestselling book, and drive him to ignominious bankruptcy and death (though it is Salander who loots his bank accounts).

All this takes a long time. But you keep reading. Larsson manages the plotting and storytelling very well. Any book which contains the sentence, “She was locked inside an area of about a thousand square metres with a murderous robot from hell” can’t be all bad, any more than it can be excellent. Larsson is genuinely interesting, though, when considered as part of a tradition of Swedish crime fantasy which goes back at least to the 1960s and the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were, like Larsson, part of the extreme left for whom the Social Democrats were treacherous right-wingers. (Larsson was a member of a Trotskyist group in the 1970s, and later founded a magazine, the Swedish equivalent of Searchlight, devoted to tracking and attacking the extreme right.)

Some elements are constant. Businessmen are almost always murderers. Farmers are repositories of elemental wisdom and decency. If villains have politics, they are always right-wing: the terrorists in Sjöwall and Wahlöö are South African whites; one of Larsson’s supervillains defected from the KGB to work for the west. No one ever feels guilt about sex, unless they are Christian, in which case they are also perverted murderers. But in the 40 years between the two series, you can see an enormous loss of hope and self-confidence, and the evisceration of the social democratic dream. Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote about teamwork, not just because they borrowed from Ed McBain: it was important ideologically that the collective should triumph. Their detectives were anchored, happily or otherwise, in families. Larsson’s heroes are purely individual, with no social bonds other than those they choose themselves. Children do not impinge on their lives: parents, where they occur, are monsters.

In Sjöwall and Wahlöö the fantasy is of an omnicompetent state: they depict a nation almost sufficiently socialist for the right people to be in charge, and sufficiently incorruptible for the law to be fairly enforced. Two touches illustrate their thought-world: in one book, an assassination attempt on a visiting politician’s motorcade is foiled when the state television is persuaded to broadcast the show with a 20-minute delay, so that the bomb goes off long after the politicians are past. The state television is, of course, the only source of news. In the other, a man who has lent his sporting rifle to a policeman so that he can save the hero’s life is immediately afterwards arrested because he hasn’t got a licence.

In Larsson’s world all this is gone. Serbian gangsters murder at will in Stockholm, quite unhindered except by Salander’s magic and Blomkvist’s instinctive heroism. In the countryside, there are heavily armed, drug-dealing biker gangs whom the law cannot touch. Both of those story elements are drawn from life, or at least the newspapers. All Larsson does is to exaggerate a little so that authority becomes malevolent when it’s not impotent. Although there are good lawyers and good policemen, given to pious speeches about citizens’ rights, the state is no longer to be relied on even when it means well.

Not much of this will make sense to any readers outside Sweden. Nor will they be helped by the almost complete absence of description, or any sense of place. Judging by the success of the books this doesn’t matter. Whether this is what Sweden is really like is not a sensible question, since the central characters are so unreal. But I suspect that the earlier parts of the millennium novels, before the wish-fulfilment kicks in, depict a country which is broadly realistic. Purged of efficient conspiracies, sex murders and superpowers, the books would be a reasonable guide to modern Sweden—and no one would read them at all, because what we want from thrillers is a healing trip to fairyland.

It is not just the settings which are purged of particularity in these books. Genre fiction can be very well written, but in this particular genre too much individuality would be a mistake. This is a paradoxical result of the extreme stress on the solitary splendour of the heroes. Since all that matters is the exercise of their wills, they never engage with the difficulties of the world in ways that demand subtlety or exactitude of description.

The classic detective story restored order at the end. This was true for a long time in Swedish crime fiction, too; it’s certainly true in Sjöwall and Wahlöö and in the domestic Swedish detective novel, which Scandinavia women journalists in their thirties write instead of chicklit. But that doesn’t sell nearly so well internationally as the grand dystopian fantasies. When Sjöwall and Wahlöö flourished, the whole world seemed to be moving towards a more Swedish future: we would be richer, more peaceful, more equal and less free. All of these things have come about, apparently: why is it that bestsellers now predict a future that will be solitary, nasty, brutish, and dependent on the goodwill of witches?