Well, first order of business:
I haven’t died since my last post.
Of last year.
Nor was I raptured in October. Harold Camping was wrong again.
I have, however, been a victim of a busy schedule and probably some degree of overall burnout.
Anyway, new year – new goals, which include more writing, less me (and possibly a new bike…), and a few other things that are long overdue.
Let’s start with the first.
For Christmas, I found myself the owner of a new Kindle Fire. I fully accept that the Fire is, out of the box, basically an Amazon Vending Machine. I’m good with that. It’s got potential, and I like the form factor better than the iPad.
I’d gotten my mom the DVDs of the Swedish versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’d watched them last year, and Mom had been reading the books, so we ended up more or less swapping. (NB – I haven’t seen the new American version of the first film, so any comparisons I make between the books and the films will refer to the Swedish productions.)
What I’d like to do here is capture some of my thoughts on the series without spoiling too many important plot points. Thus this won’t be a full-on review but rather some loosely connected thoughts and observations. Bear with me while I try to re-engage the writing cogs.
I suspect that most people are familiar with the basic outline of the books – Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex web of conspiracies when he’s asked to help investigate a decades-old mystery and makes the acquaintance of hacker Lisbeth Salander and her aforementioned tattoo.
The first thing to note is that the original Swedish title of the book – Män som hatar kvinno – translates as Men Who Hate Women. That proves to be the thread that ties the entire series together, and indeed the thread that has defined most of Salander’s life.
(Larsson witnessed a rape when he was young, and never forgave himself for failing to help the victim. The theme of the trilogy is derived from that event.)
In telling Salander’s story of victimization – initially at the hands of her father and later at the hands of nearly every authority figure she encounters – Larsson also addresses issues of gender inequality in the workplace, in government, and in the perceptions of the population as a whole.
Lisbeth’s brilliant intellect and single-minded thirst for revenge is set against her tiny, doll-like physique. Her refusal to conform to social norms is used in the second and third books to attack her in the press and in the courtroom.1
Annika, Blomkvist’s sister (later Salander’s lawyer) draws on similarities between her youthful behavior and Lisbeth’s to point out the double standards at work. Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s married lover (and a very shrewd businesswoman) finds herself under attack because of her sexual habits. Female police inspectors in the story are looked down on by their male counterparts.
An interesting thing to notice is that Blomkvist (in the books – they leave out most of this in the movies) is portrayed as quite the player. During the course of the books, Blomkvist carries on extended affairs with:
- Erika Berger – his married lover who he has been with off and on for 20 year or so.
- Cecilia Vanger – a woman who he investigates in connection with a decades-old possible murder.
- Lisbeth Salander – who seduces him during the investigation of the Vanger case, and with whom he has a fairly lengthy relationship.
- Harriet Vanger – Cecilia’s long-lost cousin.
- Monica Figuerola – a special police investigator helping to work out the conspiracy surrounding Salander’s father.
I’m not sure if Blomkvist is written this way in order to serve as an example within the story of a man who can relate to women as equals, or if he’s written as a typical Swedish male and I’m simply trying to view Swedish attitudes about sex through an American lens, or if there’s something else going on. The end result is that Blomkvist is clearly not a white-hat good guy, but is instead somewhat ethically suspect. Ordinarily, I tend to like characters with some moral ambiguity, since it makes them more interesting, but I’ve got an issue with this sort of thing.2
There are a few other interesting characters spread across the books. One of the most interesting, in my opinion, is Alexander Zalachenko. Zalachenko, a Russian assassin who defects to Sweden in the 1970’s, is Lisbeth’s father. The Swedish authorities recognize the value of the information Zalachenko can provide, and consequently give him a long leash, turning a blind eye to his violent habits and criminal endeavors. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Zalachenko’s value diminishes, but it’s far too late to rein him in. His activities form the nucleus of the conspiracies against Salander, but it’s clear that the Swedish authorities who cleaned up after him and failed to control him are at least as culpable as he is. What makes him interesting is that he’s not just evil for the sake of being evil. His actions seem consistent within the limits of his own self-interest. He’s aware enough to manipulate others into doing what he needs to be done, he thinks through the consequences of his actions, and he needs a motivation to do things beyond simply causing problems for a hero to solve.3
Overall, I enjoyed the books. Having already seen the movies, I knew generally what to expect, but there was enough new and expanded material to keep me interested, especially the more detailed insight into Lisbeth’s character. The nuggets of Swedish political history that are sprinkled through the books give them some grounding in actual events, which is a nice touch. Parts can be difficult to read – the assault on Salander in the first book, and some of the graphic descriptions of crimes throughout leave little to the imagination – but such scenes are important to advancing the plot.
As a set of interconnected mysteries, the books work very well, and I highly recommend them on the strength of that alone. If you happen to find topics of social justice and the treatment of women in different layers of society are more your thing, you’ll find a good helping of those in here, too.
1In some ways reminiscent of the way women like Monica Lewinsky and Casey Anthony have been portrayed in the media. Guilt or innocence often seems secondary to digging up lurid personal details.
2I suppose it’s worth mentioning that all of Blomkvist’s liasons are consensual, and none of his partners have an expectation of long-term monogamy. Nevertheless, his characterization reminds me a bit too much of people who I know who think with their penises.
3Writing convincing villains is hard. Too often you end up with a 2-dimensional character that exists solely for the purpose of doing bad things. Like Darth Vader. He was nothing but a glorified errand boy. When George Lucas tried to give Vader some depth in the prequel trilogy, all he really succeeded in doing was establishing that Vader was a whiny, arrogant errand boy. Or consider the typical characterization of the devil, who seems to turn up for no reason other than to function as an agent of evil. That’s a topic for another day.