One of the strangest publishing phenomena in recent memory is the extraordinary international success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. A semi-famous left-wing Swedish journalist who died young and relatively uncelebrated, the three mystery novels Larsson wrote before his death, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have sold millions of copies worldwide, gained a dedicated cult of adoring fans, spawned a hugely popular Swedish film series, and set in motion a Hollywood remake directed by celebrated filmmaker David Fincher.
There is really only one reason for the massive success of Larsson’s trilogy: a fascinating, unique, and entirely fictional young woman named Lisbeth Salander. While the books’ Swedish setting, their overtones of political and social criticism, and their main character, the plodding journalist and obvious Larsson alter ego Michael Blomquist, are interesting variations on the conventional mystery, it is Salander who elevates the proceedings into something entirely new in crime fiction.
Women have figured in detective novels before, of course, all the way back to Agatha Christie’s whimsically menacing old spinster Miss Marple, but there has never been anything like Lisbeth Salander. A genius computer hacker with a photographic memory, Salander is also a bisexual, possibly autistic, anti-social misfit who stalks the streets of Stockholm with a punk haircut and a face full of piercings. A victim of longtime physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, Salander is given to fits of barely controlled violence directed against those who have exploited, abused, and wronged her. She is now a role model and hero to women worldwide, mainly because of the brutal and uncompromising revenge she takes on the rapists, murderers, and other assorted criminals she encounters over the course of the Millennium trilogy. She — and her popularity — are also a glorious spanner in the works of what, on the surface, appear to be the very conventional liberal politics of Larsson’s books.
Larsson’s personal political views are not in doubt. He was a longtime member of the Swedish radical left, and his magazine Expo was famous for exposing the dark underbelly of the Swedish right wing. In an early and now invalidated will, he went so far as to leave all his assets to the local communist party. At first glance, the novels seem to follow Larsson’s ideology fairly closely. Blomquist, Larsson’s alter ego, is an aging libertine who carries on a longtime affair with another man’s wife — with her husband’s knowledge — and spends his time bedding numerous women while congratulating himself for not bowing to conventional social expectations. The Expo-like magazine he runs is all but identical to Larsson’s own. The books themselves deal with subjects like rampant violence against women, trafficking in prostitutes, and the crimes, conspiracies, and cover-ups engineered by the collusion between government and big business. Indeed, there are moments when the books seem to stop dead in their tracks so that one of Larsson’s characters can deliver an NPR-style bromide on a subject dear to the liberal heart.
In the midst of all of this, Lisbeth Salander explodes like a grenade tossed into an ammunition dump. Ferociously individualist, incorruptible, disdainful, and suspicious of all forms of social organization, and dedicated to her own personal moral code, Salander often seems to have stepped into Larsson’s world from out of an Ayn Rand novel. She despises all institutions, whether they are business corporations, government agencies, or the Stockholm police. Rejecting all forms of ideology, she is dedicated only to her own individual sense of justice. Relentlessly cerebral, she trusts only what she can ascertain with her own mind and her own formidable talents. She considers Blomquist a naïve fool because of his belief that social conditions cause people to commit the horrible crimes he investigates. At one point, as Blomquist ponders the motivations of a brutal serial killer, Salander erupts, “He’s just a pig who hates women!” Salander believes there are no excuses, everyone is responsible for their own actions, including herself, and must answer for them accordingly.
In short, Salander is as close to an avenging angel libertarianism is ever likely to get, and her presence in the novels throws the books’ politics into a bizarre contradiction. Far from the left-wing bromide in favor of democratic socialism it appears to be, the Millennium trilogy, as Ian MacDougall has pointed out in the leftist journal n+1, often appears on second glance like a calculated and relentless evisceration of the Swedish welfare state. Indeed, not only is Salander a walking rebuke to the myths of Scandinavian socialism, but she is usually portrayed by Larsson as being absolutely correct in her attitude toward it. “In this Sweden,” MacDougall writes:
The country’s well-polished façade belies a broken apparatus of government whose rusty flywheels are little more than the playthings of crooks. The doctors are crooked. The bureaucrats are crooked. The newspapermen are crooked. The industrialists and businessmen, laid bare by merciless transparency laws, are nevertheless crooked. The police and the prosecutors are crooked.
In Larsson’s world, it is only the individual — usually Salander — with their own personal sense of right and wrong and the courage to act on it, who can save the day.
It is, perhaps, telling that millions of readers around the world, whatever their political orientation, have become fans of the Millennium series and especially of Lisbeth Salander. Indeed, it appears that Steig Larsson, though he himself might have been horrified at the prospect, gave birth to one of the great literary ironies of our time: for reasons that will likely forever remain unknown, a Scandinavian leftist managed to create a libertarian parable for the ages.