Many of us have been trained to turn our collective nose up at any book with airport-bookstore appeal, giant subway ads or an author’s name printed larger than the title. Anyone who wants to break this rule must do so in secret, and if caught out, plead “guilty pleasure.”
So why is everyone-judging by the proud book jackets on display on the subways these days-reading Stieg Larsson? Since his death in 2004, the Swede has dominated best-seller lists worldwide, even though a glance at his first novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, should place him firmly in the same category of Dan “It’s a guilty pleasure!” Brown. The writing is stiff and repetitive, and doesn’t have the firecracker plotting that explains the success of The Da Vinci Code. And yet, people read Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy without any trace of shame.
Could it be because the books are an import from Sweden? Perhaps for the same reason people have trouble recognizing IKEA furniture as flimsy, the intelligent public has let itself be deluded into thinking that, because the books hail from the land of Bergman, because their author wears charming, horn-rimmed glasses, because they have interesting-looking covers, these books are smart. On top of that, they even have a Theme, spelled out by the hero, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, late in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest:
Five foot tall and skinny, she could so easily be a Hot Topic cliché, but the author refused to make this hacker a superhero. Her rage is real, and unraveling its source is the most compelling project of these books.
“When it comes down to it,” he intones, “this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.”
And there it is: This is a thriller for people who suspect they’re too good for stories about spies.
But if we admit to ourselves that this is high-minded shlock, there is something endearing about these books. Her name is Lisbeth Salander, and she is Larsson’s greatest achievement. She won my heart in the first novel, when she took revenge on a man who raped her by filming him in the act, disabling him with a Taser and tattooing his chest: “I am a sadist, pig and a rapist.” In the second novel, we saw her save a battered woman from a hurricane; fight off a string of evil bikers; and escape from her own grave, with a bullet in her brain, to take an ax to the shooter. Five foot tall and skinny, she could so easily be a Hot Topic cliché, but the author refused to make this hacker a superhero. Her rage is real, and unraveling its source is the most compelling project of these books.
Unfortunately, she spends nearly all of this novel stuck in a hospital bed, and her absence makes Hornets’ Nest the weakest of the series. Though she has a few computer-hacking set pieces, like when she worms into the network of Sweden’s largest daily paper to unearth a stalker, she mostly just lies about, not speaking to the police. Before, she was a taciturn badass, but here her silence looks like helplessness. Just like his villains, Mr. Larsson has locked up his electric creation, as though afraid she would distract from his point.
When she finally emerges, to stand trial for the ax attack, she is marvelous. After months of being labeled by the press as a lesbian Satanist, she appears for her court date in full goth drag, and Blomkvist realizes she has “exaggerated her style to the point of parody.” Confronted with the empty rhetoric of the prosecutor, she refuses to answer unless posed a direct question, sticking to this with all the obstinacy of Alex Trebek. For a moment, the book is funny.
But by time we get to the trial, the tension has leaked out, and the book goes limp. Blomkvist has already saved the day, and though Salander thinks she is doomed, we know everything will come right. Larsson has hamstrung his heroine from page one, and it is a grave mistake.
He wanted his novels to draw attention to violence against women-a noble aim that, unfortunately, does not make for great reading. But in attempting this, he’s created an impressively strong female character. For all Blomkvist’s blathering about confronting evil men, Salander, when the author removes her leash, simply annihilates evil. I think she’d hate these novels, for the same reason she dislikes Blomkvist. The hard-hearted part of me wanted to hate them, too, but on setting down the last of the trilogy, and realizing there won’t be any more, I was sad. I’m going to miss that girl.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS’ NEST
by Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 576 pages, $11.50