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The Moralist

Stieg Larsson
Her teeth were bared like a beast of prey. Her eyes were glittering, black as coal. She moved with the lightning speed of a tarantula and seemed totally focused on her prey as she swung the club again….

Having investigated Blomkvist’s past for Henrik Vanger, the man who commissioned him to solve the mystery of the missing girl, Salander will eventually meet the journalist when he asks Vanger’s lawyer for a researcher to help him establish the identities of the victims in the strange list of biblical texts. Meanwhile, however, Salander’s unpleasant encounters with her guardian are intercut with a developing sexual adventure of Blomkvist’s. When the young Harriet Vanger disappeared forty years before, all the many members of the extended Vanger family had been on the island of Hedeby to attend a shareholder’s meeting of the company they jointly owned. Much aged, some of those members are still in residence and must of course be questioned as part of Blomkvist’s investigation.

Cecilia, a headmistress in her mid-fifties, abused in the past by her estranged husband, invites Blomkvist for coffee. When he turns up, she greets him in a bathrobe, is happy to talk about her need for an “occasional lover,” and props her bare foot on his knee. Very soon,

She sat astride him and kissed him on the mouth. Her hair was still wet and fragrant with shampoo. He fumbled with the buttons on her flannel shirt and pulled it down around her shoulders. She had no bra. She pressed against him when he kissed her breasts.

Their embraces become routine, but after Blomkvist is obliged to take time away from his investigation to serve his brief prison sentence, he learns on his return that Cecilia wants to end the affair because she is becoming too attached and losing control.

Shortly afterward, Lisbeth Salander is engaged to help Blomkvist with his research and comes to live with him in his cabin, sleeping in a spare room. After they have spent seven days gathering information about women raped, burned, bound, strangled, and mutilated over the last fifty years, Salander realizes that Blomkvist “had not once flirted with her.” For his part Blomkvist is concerned about being seen around with Salander because she looks “barely legal” and hence he might appear to be “a dirty old middle-aged man,” something that worries him greatly. Irritated because she knows the journalist likes women but has made no move on her, Salander goes to his bed and climbs in. Like Cecilia she sits on top. And she doesn’t mind that he has no condoms. What matters is that she has control. Again, like Cecilia, she prefers separate beds once the fun is over.

The reader is thus presented with quite an array of sexual behavior, all strictly divided into the grotesquely obscene and the charmingly promiscuous. On the one hand there are Bjurman’s anal sadism and the gruesome, sexually motivated murders, child abuse, and incest that lie at the heart of the investigation into Harriet’s disappearance (to which, in the later parts of the trilogy, will be added prostitution rackets and S&M pedophile porn). On the other hand, there are “transgressive” but harmless encounters between consenting individuals: Blomkvist with his married lover, Erika Berger (who, we hear, prefers sex with two men at a time), Blomkvist with Cecilia, Blomkvist with Salander, Salander with her lesbian lover, Mimmi (they play domination games), and so on. Notably, all sexual encounters in which men take the initiative are violent and pathological; all encounters in which women run the relationship (avoiding commitment) are okay. There is nothing in between and no space for the conventional, assertive male libido. One might say that the emphasized and elaborately fantasized ugliness of one kind of sex makes the softer variety the only one possible and permissible.

The Millenium trilogy offers much entertainment typical of genre fiction: the puzzle of the complex crime in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the suspense of the police investigation in The Girl Who Played with Fire, the drama of the political thriller in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. None of this is remarkable. What is surprising is the novels’ energetic focus on ethical issues and in particular the question of retribution. Fear and courage, so often central to thrillers and suspense narratives, are hardly discussed or dramatized; nor does Larsson make more than token efforts to have us really worry for his characters. We feel he is going through the motions when he has Blomkvist with a noose around his neck at the end of part one, or when Salander is shot in the head and buried in a shallow grave at the end of part two. We know our heroes are in no real danger because Larsson is not interested in these predicaments and makes little effort to imagine them. They are comic strip material. His two main characters themselves seem aware of this and hence are quite fearless. Half choked, apparently about to die, Blomkvist has time to reflect of his torturer, who is explaining how his father abused him: “Good Lord, what a revoltingly sick family.”

What matters instead is the division of the world into good and evil, a division that begins with splitting sex into positive and negative experiences, then ripples out from that in fascinating ways. On the side of rape and abuse are Nazism and anti-Semitism (the Vanger family includes many Nazi sympathizers), every kind of large organization (which is always understood as conspiratorial and always at some point involved in preying on young women), government, the secret services, big business, fundamentalist religion, and so on.

Even families are potentially dangerous insofar as they impose a closed world in which abuse can take place, or even be taught: Martin Vanger, the missing Harriet’s brother, was initiated in sex crime by his father, who helped him to rape and strangle a girl when he was just sixteen. Of the hugely extended Vanger family we are repeatedly told that none of its members, however unhappily married, ever divorced, as if this were an indication of a deep malaise. Investigate sex abuse and you come across a sick family and a corrupt organization. Investigate a corrupt organization and invariably someone is involved in sex abuse. Every attempt by one person to control another is evil.

On the side of cheerful promiscuity is the free person, able to move in and out of relationships and maintain more than one in openness and honesty. Lending her apartment rent-free to her lover Mimmi, Salander says she would like to come around for sex from time to time, but that it is “not part of the contract”; Mimmi can always say no and still keep the apartment. “What Berger liked best about her relationship with Blomkvist,” we are told, “was the fact that he had no desire whatsoever to control her.” Reassuringly, he “had all manner of terminated relationships behind him, and he was still on friendly terms with most of the women involved.”

So concerned are the candid, free individuals when they hear of sexual exploitation or any abuse of power that they inevitably become involved in pursuing it. Indeed Blomkvist, Salander, and their author draw most of their energy and motivation from the abuses they hate, to the point that you can no more imagine them renouncing pursuit of a sex abuser than renouncing sex itself. So while the first book turns up a sexually perverted serial killer, the second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, starts with a freelance investigation into sex trafficking (bringing underage Eastern European girls into Sweden as prostitutes), revealing complicity in the highest places. “Girls—victims; boys—perpetrators…there is no other form of criminality in which the sex roles themselves are a precondition for the crime.” In this world male prostitutes do not exist.

But what power does the ordinary person have to right these wrongs? Blomkvist and his steady lover Berger use their magazine, Millennium, to draw attention to crime and invite the authorities to take action, often a frustrating strategy, particularly when it comes to sex trafficking, because “everybody likes a whore—prosecutors, judges, policemen, even an occasional member of parliament. Nobody was going to dig too deep to bring that business down.”

Salander, on the other hand, as the supreme victim (we are aghast when we discover the full list of what she has been through), is unimpressed by the “insufferable do-gooder” Blomkvist, who thinks he can “change everything with a book.” She takes the law into her own hands and has no qualms about using violence and inflicting pain. Blomkvist, speaking for the modern liberal conscience, can’t condone this; he is always ready to consider mitigating circumstances. “Martin didn’t have a chance,” he says of the serial killer who followed his father’s footsteps. Salander’s response is doggedly simplistic: “Martin had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to strike back. He killed and raped because he liked doing it.” He deserves violent punishment.

The gratification that the trilogy offers comes when, mediated through Larsson’s and Blomkvist’s troubled but admiring contemplation, Salander exposes herself to every kind of risk in order to mete out retribution to monstrous criminals, a retribution all the more satisfying when, in fine Old Testament fashion, it resembles the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an anal rape for an anal rape. The greatest monster of them all, it turns out, is Salander’s Russian father, who beat her mother savagely, was a key man in the Russian secret services and a sex and drug trafficker to boot. The moment when, still filthy with the soil that has been heaped on her, Salander drags herself and three bullet wounds from a shallow grave to take an axe to her perverted father’s head can serve as an image of the pervading spirit of the book.

However, Salander never actually kills. Not by herself. Once she has reduced a victim to total vulnerability, fastening his feet to the floor with a nail gun, for example, she will anonymously contact some rival criminal eager to finish the job. It might be hard for the reader, or more pertinently her creator, to love her and the violence she deals out if she became a killer. As it is, we are invited to admire her ingenuity and expertise.

Not all is lurid. Food is important. Shopping. Furniture. Domesticity. Larsson invites us to identify with his heroes by filling in the ordinary moments of their lives, the humdrum aloneness that makes colorful sexual encounters so desirable. A cookbook could be compiled from Blomkvist’s efforts in the kitchen in the first novel of the trilogy. Salander prefers to get herself pizza and Coke. Both of them are used to eating alone in front of a computer screen. As independent spirits, they prefer Apple to Microsoft. Both pay more attention to technical stats than nutritional value. Replacing her computer after an accident, Salander

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