Shortly before his premature demise at the age of 50, so the story goes, Stieg Larsson turned in the three manuscripts comprising his Millennium Trilogy to his publisher, passing on before the first book of his magnum opus saw print. And from there the question becomes which tale is better, the story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (Larsson’s punk waif heroine and his blatant easy going alter ego,) or the growing legend of Larsson himself. Not since Ernest Hemingway has the mystique of a popular author loomed larger than his fantastically popular characters.
Weighing in at just under 600 pages, Girl is a surprisingly easy read—a real page turner whose main fault is the annoying habit of the translator to end English sentences with prepositions, confusing vernacular English with written English, something more and more authors are doing these days.
Originally titled “Men who Hate Women,” perhaps not the best moniker for an American audience likely to squirm at the concept, the book is a matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll. The outermost layer involves a libel case which the hero, journalist Blomkvist, has lost to the despicably unethical financier Hans-Erik Wennerström, who remains largely offstage. Then there is the overshadowing friends-with-benefits relationship between Blomkvist and his publisher, Erika Berger; and its twin, the harrowing parallel story of the savant heroine, Lisbeth, who is as computer savvy as she is socially inept, and whose cluster of personal relationships range from a mother dying of Alzheimer’s to a rapist guardian who must be taught a lesson he will never forget. Then there is the tale of the Vanger clan, an utterly dysfunctional wealthy family which includes a number of vicious Nazis both living and dead. Deeper still is the mystery of what happened to Harriet Vanger, who disappeared thirty-six years ago and is presumed dead, which Mikael is hired to solve during his self imposed exile following the libel suit—which itself contains yet another mystery: who has been murdering women all over Sweden so carefully that the authorities have no idea a serial killer is at work.
Larsson’s personal story includes the fact he changed his surname from Stig to Stieg so as not to be confused with another Swedish author; he, like Blomkvist was a journalist and editor of a magazine specializing in exposing powerful people—right wing fanatics; he died without properly witnessing his will so his assets reverted to long estranged family members leaving his long time partner, Eva Gabrielsson, nothing; the long winded explanation that he never married Eva because his life was often threatened, hence his need to keep his address private which, according to Swedish law, he could not do if they wed (the absolute lamest part of the story because it assumes no one else knew where they lived or that no one was capable of following either of them home, or even killing them elsewhere;) speculation the fatal heart attack induced by his climbing seven flights of stairs to his office due to an elevator malfunction, was a clever form of assassination (and not bad diet/congenital health problems/bad judgment/bad luck;) and there is anywhere from one and a half to seven more books involving Blomkvist and Salander in various stages of completion lurking in the shadows while Gabrielsson and Larsson’s relatives squabble over who will complete the work. But perhaps the eeriest part of the story is that the entire relationship between the “odd couple” at the core of the trilogy is a purging of guilt, a penance on the part of the author, for—as the story goes—his having mutely witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was fifteen, doing nothing to aid the victim. Hence the statistical subtext relating to prevalent male abuse of females in Sweden that begins each of the four parts of the book
Two films about the first book—one Swedish and one American—have already been released, each significantly reworking the material to make it fit into a two hour and forty minute time slot. The Swedish version is part of a successful trilogy of films, while the later American version is still waiting to be profitable to warrant same. So there is yet another mystery—why great films with subtitles are limited to “art house” distribution and DVD release in the UsofA, while their counterparts are expected to thrive abroad. In this case, however, the American film has much to recommend it.
The tale, as written, is so charming and filled with so many interesting characters with as many meanderings meant to make its enormous cast real, that one can easily forgive the author his subtle need to preach. What could have been a tedious lecture on the unethical nature of modern capitalists, the blatant lurking right wing fanaticism that does not make the Swedish travel brochures, and the wretched misogyny that pervades the placid countryside is merely woven into the background, offset by so many vivid characters and situations that are strikingly antithetical contrasts to the heinous evils the author wants to identify. The pacing is as smooth as a five speed transmission as the various parts of the story unfold, speeding up on the straightaway, slowing for the curves. Larsson also loves to credit his many literary influences, from Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books to the hard boiled thrillers of Mickey Spillane, whether it be the nicknames of his characters or the books on a shelf Blomqvist passes or the ones he reads on his lonely nights in the frigid north country as he maintains his cover-research on the Vanger family for its patriarch while secretly delving into the mystery of the missing heiress.
Not Agatha Christie, for sure, but good stuff nevertheless, likely to set the bar even higher.