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The Moralist

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Music Box Films/Everett Collection
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, 2009

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first volume of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s trilogy Millennium, a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, retires to the remote, fictional island village of Hedeby, three hours north of Stockholm, where an octogenarian industrialist, Henrik Vanger, has invited him to solve the mystery of his great-niece, who disappeared forty years before, aged sixteen. The key to the puzzle would appear to lie in five names and numbers that the girl, Harriet Vanger, wrote in her diary shortly before vanishing without trace:

Magda—32016
Sara—32109
R.J.—30112
R.L.—32027
Mari—32018

Since 32 and 30 are local area codes, it seems reasonable to suppose that these are phone numbers, yet the police found no correspondence between names and numbers. Perplexed, Blomkvist copies the list out and pins it up on the wall of the cabin where he is staying. After he has been on the island some months, his sixteen-year-old daughter turns up out of the blue. Blomkvist is divorced and rarely sees his daughter, who has hardly been mentioned to this point. She is heading for a Christian summer camp and though the island is very much out of the way it just happens to be on her way. Blomkvist isn’t happy about the girl’s religious inclinations and admits as the two say goodbye that he doesn’t believe in God; at which his daughter points out that nevertheless he reads the Bible: she “saw the quotes you had on the wall.” And she adds: “But why so gloomy and neurotic?”

Blomkvist doesn’t understand. The girl hurries off. Then it dawns on him: the first digit of the mysterious numbers indicates a book of the Bible, the second and third a chapter, the fourth and fifth a verse. Of course! Despite the fact that Blomkvist spends hours a day surfing the net on his computer, he now rushes off to find a Bible, strangely unaware that the holy book is freely available online in almost any language you care to mention. The digit 3 corresponds to Leviticus and he finds verses like:

If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.
And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.

Now at last it’s clear that the names Magda, Sara, etc. refer to the Jewish victims of a sexually perverted, anti-Semitic serial killer, something that would hardly surprise those reading the original Swedish and most European editions of the novel, which, in line with the author’s wishes, are more bluntly entitled Men Who Hate Women.

At this point, however, any half-awake reader is bound to object. First, since there are many more than ten books in the Bible, biblical references (book, chapter, verse) are never displayed with five-figure codes, so no one, however great their knowledge of the Bible, would assume them to be text references. Second, even imagining that the daughter made this connection, she would hardly be familiar with the content of these obscure verses from Leviticus; and even if she did make this connection and did recognize the verses, she would surely be concerned to inquire of her father why he was associating such disquieting material with specific girls’ names.

All this suggests that Larsson’s trilogy has not achieved its spectacular success thanks to the author’s impeccable skills as a detective story writer or any scrupulous attention to psychological realism. Loose ends and incongruities abound, lending the trilogy an endearingly amateurish feel, emphasized by a translation from the Swedish that, though for the most part fluent, occasionally treats us to decidedly muddled idiom (“He’s pulling the load of an ox and walking on eggshells”) or very curious register shifts, as for example when we have a young, uneducated punk Swede saying things like “you chaps” and “gad around.” From time to time, whether due to translation or otherwise, the imagery is plain comic; for example, Blomkvist remarks of the Leviticus murderer that “he was a cut and dried serial killer.”

Never mind. These failings pale to insignificance when one considers the sales figures. Published in 2005 in Sweden, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has now sold 50 million copies worldwide and was the first book to sell over a million on the Kindle. It has been on US best-seller lists for more than two years, and the other volumes of the trilogy show every sign of following suit. What is the attraction?

One character holds our attention throughout the trilogy and dominates discussion of the work: Lisbeth Salander. From the first pages, it’s evident that the journalist Mikael Blomkvist is an authorial alter ego. As Larsson once was, he is involved in running a left-wing magazine specializing in courageous investigative journalism; he is idealistic, committed, and of course in the novel he assumes the central, private detective’s role in a situation that sets him up to be a hero protecting vulnerable women from sadistic men. Not that Blomkvist is without his complications: he married and had a child with one woman while openly continuing an affair with another (his editorial partner Erika Berger), who in turn is happily married to a man who apparently has no problems with the arrangement. An experienced financial journalist, Blomkvist has the courage to take on big industry and as the story opens has just received a three-month prison sentence for libeling a major industrialist who deliberately fed him a false scoop in an attempt to destroy both him and his magazine.

When Blomkvist decides to take time away from journalism to tackle the mystery of Harriet Vanger, we feel sure that he will be the book’s main focus of interest. Then Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, becomes his researcher and rapidly takes over both the inquiry and the trilogy. All the real energy of the book will now come from her, to the point that it is only Blomkvist’s interest in Salander that keeps us interested in him.

Lisbeth Salander is a pitifully thin young woman of twenty-four, not five feet tall, flat-chested, “a strange girl—fully grown but with an appearance that made her easily mistaken for a child.” When Blomkvist first meets her, he finds her “altogether odd”:

Long pauses in the middle of the conversation. Her apartment was messy, bordering on chaotic…. She had obviously spent half the night in a bar. She had love bites on her neck and she had clearly had company overnight. She had heaven knows how many tattoos and two piercings on her face and maybe in other places. She was weird.

How does Blomkvist know that Lisbeth maybe had piercings “in other places”? He doesn’t. But that is the kind of thing that Larsson’s alter ego likes to think. Blomkvist is, as we are frequently told, a ladies’ man.

Needless to say, a taciturn young woman of punk appearance flaunting aggressive, antisocial behavior must have had a traumatic childhood. So it is. For reasons unrevealed until the second part of the trilogy (though the reader has no difficulty guessing that male violence is involved), Lisbeth was locked in a psychiatric ward at age twelve and is still under the control of a legal guardian who disposes of her income. She is thus extremely vulnerable, a “perfect victim,” one character thinks of her. On the other hand she is also a “world class hacker,” a brilliant, self-taught mathematician, and “an information junkie with a delinquent child’s take on morals and ethics.”

Working freelance for a security firm that installs sophisticated alarm systems and carries out private investigations, Salander has a magical ability to get inside anyone’s computer at any time and find everything relevant there in just a few moments (something many of us can’t do on our own computers); she has a photographic memory, reads all she sees in a flash, and recalls it word for word; and, or so Blomkvist imagines, she also has “Asperger’s syndrome…. Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract reasoning where other people perceive only white noise.” Finally, when circumstances demand, Salander can be extremely violent, even sadistic. She is victim, superhero, and torturer. To emphasize this paradoxical, almost cartoonish aspect of her character, Larsson has the anorexic-looking girl wear T-shirts with aggressive slogans: I CAN BE A REGULAR BITCH, JUST TRY ME or KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT.

Salander’s dealings with her new guardian, Nils Erik Bjurman—which form the first novel’s main subplot—establish a pattern for the trilogy’s treatment of sexuality, which is arguably its central, if sometimes disguised, subject. Salander’s previous guardian, who generously gave her near-total freedom, has suffered a stroke and his substitute, Bjurman, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer, decides to take advantage of his new charge and satisfy a lust for domination: “[Salander] was the ideal plaything—grown-up, promiscuous, socially incompetent, and at his mercy…. She had no family, no friends: a true victim.”

Bjurman tells Salander that she can only have access to her income in return for sex. After forcing her to engage in oral sex in one encounter, at the next he handcuffs and brutally rapes her:

“So you don’t like anal sex,” he said.
Salander opened her mouth to scream. He grabbed her hair and stuffed the knickers in her mouth. She felt him putting something around her ankles, spread her legs apart and tie them so that she was lying there completely vulnerable…. Then she felt an excruciating pain as he forced something up her anus.

Salander, however, turns the tables. With access, through her work, to high-tech security equipment, she has placed a digital camera in her bag and pointed it at the bed where Bjurman rapes her. How easy, you would have thought, for her now to launch this on the Internet and destroy the man. But “Salander was not like any normal person,” Larsson tells us. She attends the next meeting with Bjurman as promised and when he tries to repeat the scene, she stuns him with a Taser, handcuffs him to the bed, and performs the same anal abuse on him; then she forces him to watch the video of the previous rape and spends a whole night tattooing on his chest in large letters “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST.” From now on Bjurman must do exactly as she tells him, otherwise the video will be made public and he will be destroyed. “She had taken control,” thinks Bjurman in italics. “Impossible. He could do nothing to resist when Salander bent over and placed the anal plug between his buttocks. ‘So you’re a sadist,’ she said….”

There is an element of the graphic novel in all this, a feeling that we have stepped out of any feasible realism into a cartoon fantasy of ugly wish fulfillment. The same comic book tone returns whenever Salander takes retaliatory action:

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