Everyone has got secrets. The challenge is how to dig them out.
Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is a close shadow of Stieg Larsson in real life. He is the part owner and the lead journalist of the Millennium magazine. Single and single-minded in investigation, Blomkvist, called Kalle Blomkvist by many (after a famous character of a Swedish children’s book – Blomkvist himself does not like the name), shares a cozy relation with Editor-in-chief Erika Berger. Berger has an open marriage with an artist and for more than two decades – they met at the journalism school - Blomkvist and Berger have been lovers, business partners and best friends. Middle-aged Blomkvist is likeable but his habit of sleeping around in the middle of a dangerous investigation – James Bond style – is quite annoying at times. At the end of the third volume Blomkvist seems headed for a more settled relationship with an athletically beautiful police woman – aptly named – Monica Figuerola.
On the other hand Larsson’s real creativity comes out in drawing Lisbeth Salander – all of 40kgs and at 5 feet from the sea level – Salander packs an incredible punch. One of the best hackers in business, paranoid about her privacy and bisexual (her same sex partner Mirium Wu is another interesting package) – Salander provides the shock and awe treatment to the readers. Salander also has no inhibition in sex but at least she does not sleep around in the middle of an investigation (except, of course, with Blomkvist in the first book). Salander has a past, which is one of the central threads of the series and which also makes her determination admirable. But this 21st century - Modesty Blaise - meets - Charlie's angels keeps you hooked in the trilogy spanning nearly 2000 pages (the third book – at least the edition I read was double the size of a normal paperback, so therefore I am calculating around 2000 pages, otherwise all the books have around 500-600 pages each).
Larsson draws a supporting cast with wonderful eyes for details – so you can almost visualize the small staff of the Millennium magazine, office of Dragan Armansky’s Milton Security (where Salander used to work), Police Inspector Bublanski and of course Erika Berger. In the first story the small island of Hedestad comes alive in such a way that an alert reader could almost walk across the road and look around at various spots, where Harriet Vanger might have sat or walked on that fateful day more than 20 years back. As a crime fiction writer, Larsson’s greatest strength is giving out so much information and in such a neat fashion, yet holding it on till the last page (well, almost) and most importantly, a casual reader will not be able to find any contradictory or non-supportive piece of information anywhere in these massive tomes.
Millennium trilogy consists of three Blomkvist-Salander adventures - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Out of these three, the last two are actually the same story – last volume in fact starts from the precise point where the second volume gets over. If one looks at it closely then perhaps only the first one is a crime fiction, the other two being more like thrillers. In the first book, Blomkvist, discredited and sentenced to prison for defamation, heads to a small town with a curious assignment of finding out what happened on a day more than twenty years back when a girl from a prominent business family disappeared mysteriously. The way Blomkvist and Salander solves the crime is a wonderful piece of fictional detection. As I said earlier also as a detective writer Larsson puts up his best show in this book, yet there is one important weakness. At a crucial juncture in the story Blomkvist’s pre-teen daughter opens up her father’s eyes, thereby paving the way for a whole new perspective – this is one interjection Larsson could have avoided as it did not come into the story in a logical way. Second story (that is the second and third book) starts with the problem of human trafficking and prostitution rackets but soon catches up with Salander’s past. Both the books are pulsating thrillers but there are scenes where Larsson clearly goes overboard and makes it too unreal, particularly at the end of the second volume. It is in last two volumes that Larsson raises serious questions about the limit of a welfare state vis-à-vis notions of individual liberty. He also forces conscious readers to think about unfettered freedom intelligence agencies and such holy cows are often allowed to enjoy even in a democracy.
Of course these are the questions Stieg Larsson (15th Aug 1954 - 9th Nov, 2004) tried to grapple with all his adult life. Larsson, a journalist with TT Wire Agency, editor of Expo magazine, a leading science fiction fan and an expert on right wing movement died shortly after delivering three Salander manuscripts to his Swedish publisher. These are the stories he wrote for fun after his day’s work was done. A large part of the fourth novel was also found in his laptop after his death. He reportedly planned to write ten novels in this series. Larsson was a Trotskyist in his political belief (I thought in today’s world such categories exist only in Calcutta!), reportedly trained Eritrean Women guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers (in late 1970s) and spent years under police protection as his life was under threat from various neo-Nazi groups. At the age of 15, he was witness to gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth – he always blamed himself for not being able to help that girl. Since then he had been deeply concerned about atrocities against women. Overall, this is a very 21st century crime fiction/thriller series in terms of subjects, context and mentality. Like a true chartbuster all the spicy ingredients of a popular fiction are here. Still no one can deny Larsson the credit of putting it together as a unique crime series, despite obvious weaknesses of such a package.
Reading Salander and looking for more such stories I came to know a little bit about the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, which has been thriving at least since the Second World War. Geography specific sub-categorization of crime fiction with their special characteristics is a theme, which never struck me before. We generally tend to put all crime fictions/thrillers we read in English under a general category making allowance only for individual writer but not in terms of geography (Nordic crime fiction or Canadian crime fiction). But Salander forced me to accept unconsciously that it is patently wrong to overlook the geo-tagging of crime fiction. What Larsson’s success has done – going by the storm in the web world – is to highlight the entire genre of Nordic crime fiction, which despite the success of Kurt Wallander and Inspector Norse never captured the imagination of global readership in such a way.
In a recent study of crime fictions – Imagination of the Evil – author Mary Evans looks for factors behind the setting of crime fictions. Cold climates of Scandinavia, sparse and mechanical lifestyle along with a typical Nordic tendency of holding on to your emotions create an altogether different context from the late nineteenth century cobbled gas-lit streets of London, where Sherlock Holmes used to operate. I have grown up reading a whole host of amiable bhadralok Bengali Goyendas (detectives) – who abhorred violence, guns and to a large extent tried to avoid the other sex. Sub-genre of Bengali crime fiction is not very well known outside Bengal but thanks to some good English translation, a lot of people are now aware of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda (often more a typical Bengali adda story than a serious crime fiction) and one TV series has made the best Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi (written by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay) famous to at least two generations of Indians. There are a number of others from Kiriti Roy to Kakababu – but all of them, now I realize, are someway typically Bengali in terms of imagination of the evil and tackling it.