It was a few years after everyone else had read the Millennium trilogy and halfway through the second book that I realised author Stieg Larsson was having us on. The books about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are elaborate jokes.
If Wikipedia can be believed, Stieg Larsson had only considered publishing these manuscripts shortly before his death, when he was already deep into the fourth book of what is now, weirdly, marketed as a “trilogy”. The author’s otherwise puzzling hesitance to publish makes sense if yourecognise the books as parodies, a bit of fun the author was having, perhaps primarily for his own amusement.
They are compelling reading, make no mistake – page-turners, even if there are too many pages in some parts. I lined up the second book even before I had finished the first. And I’ll read the third as soon as I can get hold of it. The books are written in an unobtrusive journalistic style, each book has enough plot for five and Lisbeth Salander is a great fictional character.
At least, she is in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
In the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Larsson stretches his reader’s suspension of disbelief too far. Here Lisbeth Salander is presented as nothing short of a superhero. She’s the size of a pixie, but beats up two Hell’s Angels types and goes a few rounds with the book’s other de facto superhero, the fantastically strong “blonde giant” who is impervious to pain and is untroubled in a fight with a champion boxer.
Not only this, but near the book’s climax, Salander solves Fermat’s Theorem in her head while stalking her prey! This is a problem that has had the world’s top mathematicians baffled for centuries. Don’t tell me Larsson wrote this with a straight face.
The reviewer who compared his work with that of Ingmar Bergman got it very wrong. Bergman is also Swedish, and that’s about it. The filmmaker was self-consciously serious. Larsson is self-consciously funny. He is to Bergman as Chaplin is to Nijinsky; his genius is of a different sort.
But back to the plot aspect, which makes it even more clear that Larsson was having fun with these books. His approach to plot reminds me of that unforgettable scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny (Joe Pesci) stamps his foot and says: “Is there any more shit we can pile on to the top of the outcome of this case?
Let’s look at some of the plot elements of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
- Framing an innocent in a court case (Blomkvist)
- Financial fraud on international scale (Wennerström)
- Financial fraud on individual scale (Salander)
- Whodunit – a murder committed by one of a closed group of people
- Computer hacking (Salander)
- Institutional injustice
- Vigilante revenge
- Family intrigue that would put Falcon Crest to shame (the Vangers)
- Nazis (various)
- A sadistic rapist (Bjurman)
- Two serial killers!
The second book adds a biker gang, international sex trafficking, Cold War espionage, domestic violence and a chainsaw massacre to some of the elements of the first. The body count would not be out of place in a Schwarzenegger movie.
Most thriller writers would be happy to spin a yarn featuring one or two of these plot lines. Not Larsson. I can imagine him sitting in front of his Powerbook. Let’s see… What other form of villainy is there? Add it in!
Rumour has it that the German one-hit wonders Trio wrote their immortal song “Da Da Da I Don’t Love You You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha Aha” in response to a rival band’s music that they considered boring and monotonous. So they wrote the worst song they could and, lo and behold, they had a massive hit!
Whether the story is true, I don’t know. But I can imagine Stieg Larsson being similarly motivated. He tried to write books that took the thriller genre to ridiculous extremes.
And, like Trio, he’s had amazing success. He deserves it too. The so-called Millennium trilogy speaks of genius. But it’s the genius of a fun fair attraction – most enjoyable, in the way of a roller-coaster ride or a house of horrors.
If the author had lived to see the incredible success of his work and the seriousness of some of the praise, my guess is he would’ve had a good laugh. Not for the first time.