Sunday, September 7, 2008

Larsson's Legacy

Here's a piece of mine that ran in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, Sept. 6th:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; Knopf

Reading thrillers for a living is a great job: I'd do it for nothing (don't tell my editors). But after a diet of serial killers, apocalyptic scenarios, burned-out private detectives and the usual crop of honest or bent federal agents and cops, it's like a blast of cold, fresh air to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—the latest entry in the booming Swedish crime-fiction business.

Karin Fossum won prizes and big sales in recent years for her The Indian Bride. So did Henning Mankell (Faceless Killers) and other Swedish writers. But what separates Stieg Larsson's work from theirs is that it features at its center two unique and fascinating characters: a disgraced financial journalist and the absolutely marvelous 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander—a computer-hacking Pippi Longstocking with pierced eyebrows and a survival instinct that should scare anyone who gets in her way.

We first meet Salander through the eyes of her adoring and protective employer, Dragan Armansky, head of a large private security firm in Stockholm. "He thought for the thousandth time that nobody seemed more out of place in a prestigious security firm," writes Larsson in Reg Keeland's elegant translation. "His mistrust was both wise and irrational. In Armansky's eyes, Salander was beyond doubt the most able investigator he had met in all his years in the business."

His star sleuth, we soon learn, "was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle. On those occasions when she had been wearing a tank top, Armansky also saw that she had a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers."

Armansky has been hired by the lawyer for the head of a wealthy and respected family of industrialists, the Vangers, to dig up what he can on Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist and publisher of a struggling magazine called Millennium which has become known for its attacks on high-level swindlers. Blomkvist has just been sentenced to three months in prison after losing a libel suit brought by one of his targets. Of course Armansky picks Salander, who has a truly amazing way of sucking out secrets from computer files. She comes up with some interesting stuff, which the lawyer reads and then calls Blomkvist to tell him that his employer, Henrik Vanger, wants to offer him a job.

Up in the town of Hedestad, a coastal village three hours north of Stockholm, Blomquist discovers that the 82-year-old Vanger wants him to solve a 40-year-old mystery: What happened to Harriet Vanger, the daughter of Vanger's pro-Nazi brother, Richard? Harriet was just 16 when she disappeared, and despite a lengthy police investigation no trace of her was found—although every year on the anniversary of her disappearance unusual flowers are delivered to Vanger.

Blomkvist begins digging and actually finds some new material. He asks the Vanger lawyer to hire a trained snooper, and is given Salander's name. Their relationship blossoms—despite his finding out that in the course of investigating him, she has hacked into his own computer. We watch as Salander's distrust of almost everyone (totally justified by her own terrible experiences with guardians and lawyers) begins to thaw. As for Blomkvist, he realizes what an incredible creature Salander is.

Now for some sad news: Larsson, a Swedish magazine journalist who also wrote books on honor killings and the extreme right in Sweden, died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 50, shortly before his fictional debut became a worldwide phenomenon. Sales of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had reached the million mark in Sweden even before the British publisher Christopher MacLehose took it on for the independent publisher Quercus. The book became so popular in Europe that tourists now go on tours of the places mentioned in it.

Larsson finished two more books in what he called The Millennium Trilogy before he died. The duo will return next year in the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire, in which Salander is wanted for a triple murder while Blomkvist tries to clear her name.

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