Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

You know the Millennium Trilogy has entered American pop culture when Nora Ephron, film director (Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally), writes an hysterically funny satire in The New Yorker (July 5) entitled "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut." The humor is completely lost in translation, I won't try to paraphrase, so I urge the reader to enjoy Ephron's oh-so-clever piece at For all but die hard fans, this book suffers a bit from TMI, Ephron gets it right when she mimics a route in Stockholm that sounds like a GPS on steroids - "[Mårtensson] got into his Volvo and drove towards the city but turned off to go across Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm. He drove down Hornsgatan and across to Bellmansgatan via Brännkyrkagatan. He turned left onto Tavastgatan at the Bishop's Arms pub..." (p. 251). All jesting aside, the Stockholm City Museum offers Millennium Walking Tours, check it out at In fact the Södermalm area south of Folkungagatan ("SoFo," I mean, what else could it be ?) has become the trendsetting epicenter of the city. Get this, The New York Times Sunday Travel Section just did an article (June 20) entitled "Not so Sinister in Stockholm," detailing the M3 neighborhood.

This final volume can be considered the "day of reckoning" on the events that have transpired in M1 and M2. A silent but omnipresent actor enters the stage, the Government, in the form of the Section for Special Analysis (SSA) (p. 82), Säpo's autonomous top secret division, run by some die hard Cold Warriors. Since misinformation is the basis of espionage (p. 144), the author succeeds in building a very complex dialogue - the reader is typically prepped on reality and can see the misinformation propagate. M3 showcases true storytelling mastery. Larsson is making a bigger statement here, related to the constitutional rights of LS and the crime against her for which the State is guilty (p. 279). The SSA is acting outside it's constitutional mandate (p. 281) in a conspiracy. Many readers complain of the protracted discussions of these human rights issues, but Larsson is choosing to use his crime thriller to make a case.
Lisbeth Salander has been compared to Lara Croft (popularized in the 1991 Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider) and such a reference appears in M3 when she is communicating with her hacker partner Plague (p. 240) and an animated Lara Croft-like figure stepped out on her PDA.

Fröken Salander is a poster girl for injustice. Larsson, a self proclaimed feminist makes the case again and again that women have been victimized for, shall we say. Millennia ? As a preface to M3, he posts a little piece about Amazon women (p. 147) and the etymology of the word "Amazon." Later he references the Fon of Dahomey, a women's army in west Africa, finally defeated in 1892.
The book is rife with vigilantism, consider the private investigator Linder - "[Linder] knew that technically she had committed one crime after another this evening, including unlawful restraint and even aggravated kidnapping. She did not care. On the contrary, she felt almost exhilarated." (p. 401).
M3 is about hacking and of course we learn in M1 and M2 that Lisbeth is a hacker extraordinaire, under code name Wasp. So the Palm Tungsten T3 PDA (p. 237) is pictured here as co-star ! Lisbeth is held captive in the hospital or jail for the first 25 chapters of the book. As such her control is truly "action at a distance," all through her PDA, which is smuggled into her hospital room. In the end, all the loose ends are tied together, one could say "Larsson nails it." But, you'll see what I mean.
Post script - I cannot overstate how I enjoyed the reference to Sergio Leone's spaghetti western masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, as a ring tone for Monica Figuerola's mobile phone (p. 471).

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

Knowing something of Stieg Larsson's life and having digested the characters and themes in the first book ("M1"), one becomes so alert to art imitating life in M2. It is almost as if Larsson is using the Millennium trilogy to play a complex game of Second Life. In the first book, we see so many instances of his characters reading crime novels by famous authors, especially Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi Longstocking fame). In fact, he wants them to be well read. When Lisbeth Salander receives her mother's modest inheritance, she makes an anonymous contribution to Stockholm's crisis centres for women (p. 104). Larsson imbues his characters with his own personal tastes. At one point (p. 234), he has Blomkvist listening to Debbie Harry singing Maria, great choice !

Anonymity is a central theme - LS goes out of her way to maintain her old apartment as a decoy address for mail collection, and installs her friend Mimmi there as caretaker. "The address on Lundagatan was on every public register and database, and in all those years she had never had the means to improve her security; she could only stay on her guard. Now the situation was different. She did not want anyone to know her new address in Mosebacke." (p. 102). We later learn (p. 461) that her 25 million-kronor ($3.7 million) pied-à-terre was owned by Percy Barnevik, who many readers will know was former CEO of Asea Brown Boveri ("ABB") (1988-1996), and is ignominiously remembered as benefitting from a huge golden parachute pension payout (148 million Swiss francs) upon retirement.

Consider that in real life, Larsson never married his girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, because Swedish law would require them to provide a residential address. The fact that they never married is the source of the posthumous acrimonious legal wrangling that Eva is embroiled with Larsson's brother and father (I'm guessing Martin and Gottfried Vangar come to mind) regarding ownership of his books, including the text for an unreleased M4 that resides on her computer. No Will was ever executed. Fans have formed a web site to assist Eva with the legal costs,

As mentioned in the post for M1, this book is really all about 26-year old Lisbeth. At one point we learn Blomkvist has nicknamed her Sally (p. 163), hence the naming of the fan-site As the reader makes headway through the book, more and more layers of Salander's history are revealed with the shocker coming in the last few pages. We even learn that her chosen surname is influenced by deep dark secrets in her past. Her superhero femme fatale persona reminds one of the heroine in the 1990 Luc Besson film La Femme Nikita. Pursuing this line of thought, femmes fatale often carry out very asymmetric relations with their male counterparts, so true of her relation with Blomkvist.

At the outset, Lisbeth is found enjoying her new-found funds in Grenada, listening to the magical sounds of a steel band, thinking "the barrel could make music like nothing else in the world" (p. 10). Good start. Numerous references speak to a dark adolescence, which she calls "All The Evil." We will not find out what that evil was until the end is near (p. 438). One theme that looms large in M2 is the role of the Government in covering up clandestine activity, specifically the Swedish Security Police or Säpo. Without giving away the story, a certain Russian spy who defected to Sweden and was granted political asylum plays a larger and larger role as book M2 morphs to book M3.

The final 100 pages is fast and furious, the reader always clueless as to how Salander will extricate herself from trouble. We learn that the book's title relates to a certain Molotov cocktail, but I must avoid spoiler hints. The cliffhanger manner in which the book ends is Stieg Larsson's way of saying "I just dare you not to buy book 3 !!" Pity the poor readers who read M2 when it was first published in the U.S. as they had to wait interminably for M3 to publish domestically. After finishing the book, one might consider a better title to be "Girl, Interrupted."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This is the first of three crime novels in the Millennium trilogy, published posthumously, selling more than 27 million copies world wide as of 2010. On the surface, this is a riveting book, a page turner. I had the same page-turner experience with Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I read in Japan. I was motivated to tackle this book because I have read good things about the just-released movie. The first hundred pages lays out the exposition, at a very methodical pace, but then, all of a sudden, so much just starts to happen. And contrary to the title, the first book really centers around Blomkvist. The second book is really all about "the girl."

The plot is multi-layered, but revolves around the dynamic duo of Mikael Blomkvist, smeared editor of Millennium, an erudite magazine that acts as a watchdog to corporate misdeeds, and Lisbeth Salander, an incorruptible asocial punk, hacker non-pareil, and private investigator. Interestingly, Larsson himself edited a journal, Expo, as a founder of the Swedish Expo Foundation, established to counteract the growth of the extreme right and racist organizations. Lisbeth was modeled after Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstalking. In fact, Michael Blomkvist's nickname (which he detests) Kalle Blomkvist derives from a detective in the Swedish-language version of Lindgren's book as well.

Blomkvist is hired by industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his great niece Harriet 40 years earlier. Conveniently, the author provides a handy genealogical tree for the Vanger clan at the outset of the book. Subsequent volumes M2 and M3 lack this nice little DNA cheat sheet, likely because such a tree would reveal blood relations that are carefully obscured until the end of M2, especially regarding Lisbeth. At the core, this book is rife with conflicts of interest, among so many parties, with more than a few unlikely couplings. The original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women. This line will appear in M2 near the end (p. 463). This is a resonating theme. Larsson also is consumed with the virulent strain of Nazism still evident in Swedish society.

Two films come immediately to mind when reading this book. The theme is well trodden -protagonists mastermind a con and end up with the crooks' money. Pam Grier is fabulous in Quentin Tarentino's Jackie Brown (1997), where she absconds with misplaced drug money, unbeknownst to anyone except her "Mikael Bomkvist," who in this film is a bail bondsman. Also Julia Roberts' corporate spy role in Duplicity (2009) has the same flavor in the end. And now we must add Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) in Salt (2010).