My name is Jeff and I’m an addict. My drug of choice: Swedish detective fiction.
After an intense phase of reading Iris Murdoch novels, I found myself washed ashore in a dreaded no man’s land; I was between authors. (It’s a dreary, puzzling place to find oneself in, much like logging on to Facebook.) Thankfully, a friend of mine came to the rescue by introducing me to the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, whose career-defining creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, is an anti-hero par excellence. He’s an accident-prone divorcé, who is lousy at personal intimacy and even worse at office politics, but he gets it absolutely right when it comes to solving brutal crimes that confound everyone else on the force. I devoured the series in a hurry, and was then left where I’d started: authorless.
Sure, I took some fine literary detours with A.S. Byatt, Louise Erdrich and Mary Gaitskill, but in the back of my mind I felt anxious for all those snowbound Swedes: without Wallander around, who was going to solve all those murders, while, at the same time, lucidly explaining the societal ills of Northern Europe? Just as my initiation into Mankell’s fictional world ended, Stieg Larsson’s own series of books were published (posthumously) in English, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Did Stieg instantly satisfy and seduce in the way that Henning had? No, not instantly, but he did hold my attention with the moody, brooding tone of a cold, cold, wintry Sweden. And instead of one anti-hero, Larsson provided his readers with two. He pairs a finance journalist named Mikael Blomkvist with an unlikely partner, Lisbeth Salander, a young Goth girl who also happens to be a brilliant computer hacker. Each of these characters have a vulnerability, a flaw that exposes each one of them to harm, but which ultimately bring them together to solve the central crime of the novel.
The BBC recently made an impassioned and faithful adaptation of the Wallander series, starring the perfectly-cast Kenneth Branagh. For the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the smartest move the producers made was to keep the story at home. Remember the difference between the original Norwegian production of Insomnia (1997), starring Stellan Skarsgard (pre-Mamma Mia!), and the unnecessary American remake with Al Pacino (post-Scent of a Woman)? What’s chilling and somber in Scandinavia comes across as ham-fisted and melodramatic in Hollywood. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, however, is such an effective thriller that an English-language version, directed by, say, Ridley Scott or Kathryn Bigelow, would be well worth the cross-cultural translation.
The story begins with Blomkvist’s disgrace in court: he’s convicted of libel. His sudden infamy brings him to the attention of an aging business magnate, Henrik Vanger, whose beloved niece, Harriet, has been missing for several decades. Everyone in the extensive Vanger clan believes that Harriet has been murdered, but her body was never found. What draws Blomkvist into this world is the same thing that bewitched Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s Laura and Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo: the haunting image of a lovely woman, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance.
The director, Niels Arden Oplev, makes visually explicit in the film what is only implied in the novel. Blomkvist repeatedly stares at a black and white photo of Harriet, as if he’s in a trance, spellbound by an irretrievable, lost love. It’s one of the many fine devices that are used in the movie to condense the novel’s wide-reaching, overlong narrative. The depiction of violence against women, though, was disturbing to read, and more upsetting to watch.
As if anticipating this criticism, Larsson constructs parallel accounts of two women who are able to empower themselves, despite the abuse they suffer from the men in their lives. One of these women is Lisbeth Salander. It is through her insight, instinct and intellect that Blomkvist is able to complete the Herculean task he has been given. In this fictional Sweden, men are mostly bestial, emotionally tone deaf and/or ignorant, while resourceful women are smart enough to survive without them.
I haven’t yet read the Girl sequels because there’s a part of me that misses Wallander’s small town life in Ystad. The world seemed like a safer place when he was awake at 3 a.m., playing opera at full blast, obsessed with yet another case. Larsson was a natural heir to Mankell’s style, but unlike his progenitor’s work, both the book and film versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lack Wallander’s good heart. Or, perhaps that detective was the last of a dying breed who first instigated, then finally cured me, of my need for frozen noir.
Rumpus original art by Melissa Tan.