The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first of Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy published posthumously in 2005, widened the audience for Scandinavian mysteries. It is set in the urban centre of Stockholm for some of the time, though much of the action takes place in remoter districts in the north of Sweden. The mood, of course, is dark and portentous.
The other two books in the trilogy are The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Why are the Larsson books so popular? The one-of-a-kind character of Lisbeth Salander has to be a large part of it. She is warped by a history of abuse in childhood and lives in her own take-no-prisoners, explain-nothing world. She is sexy but in a very individual way. The particular skill that allows her to take some control over a world she distrusts is computer hacking. She is ruthless and not politically correct: dishing out punishment to those who deserve it, she doesn’t have time for the slow, plodding, and possibly over-lenient approach of the justice system. There have been plenty of other heroines with fighting talents before (Modesty Blaise was an earlier version), but she is closer to the edge than any. There is a secret satisfaction from seeing her inflict severe damage on those who deserve it.
Mikael Blomkvist is appealing as a journalist willing to go to extremes to expose corruption. He brings Larsson himself to mind: as the editor of Expo magazine, Larsson was an activist, battling racist and neo-Nazi organizations.
The book has been made into a movie, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. The screenplay is a model of its kind; it translates the book to the screen very successfully, paring away carefully so that we get the essence of the story: we don’t lose anything significant and the mood is preserved. In the movie, the main characters, Blomkvist and Salander, played by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, look like real people rather than airbrushed Hollywood actors. The sound track, full of Swedish voices, makes it easy to feel immersed in the country. There is a welcome, European feel to this film — more realism and less polish. I am not looking forward to the inevitable American version, already planned for release in 2012.