We’ve been talking about Swedish literature–particularly, Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God. This would be a good time to discuss the latest outbreak of Swedish literature on our shores, the publishing phenomenon of Swedish mysteries. The biggest sellers are by the late Stieg Larsson, whose “Millennium Trilogy” has sold millions, with the first title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being made into what looks like a blockbuster movie that will be released December 21.
I started reading these as vacation diversions last summer and have to admit that I enjoyed them immensely. I’m interested in the genre and the conventions of mystery stories. As with all artistic forms, it is possible to follow them mechanically, resulting in merely conventional writing. But they can also become the framework for infinite variations and fascinating applications. These Swedish mysteries are especially complicated and absorbing: There is not only ONE mystery to solve, there are several related mysteries. And there is not only ONE detective trying to figure everything out. There are several, working both together and at cross purposes with each other. (This is true of the Larsson books, and it is also true of another Swedish mystery that I read, The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler. Perhaps someone can say if these features are true of Swedish–or perhaps Scandinavian– mysteries as a whole.) Also, the alliance between the rumpled but idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander advances the tradition of unlikely partners in detection that began with Holmes and Watson. And Lisbeth is a truly compelling character, another eccentric-to-the-point-of-being-mentally-ill detective (think Adrian Monk) whose problems give them their advantages. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo even makes use of the famous “locked room” plot and then completely, we might say, deconstructs it.
So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a really good mystery, combining also elements of the suspense thriller. The subsequent ones, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, not so much. They are thrillers, but not really mysteries. One reads them just to see what the characters will do next. And I would say those other two lay bare the over-the-top sensationalism that is also in the first one, but that is compensated for by the mystery. After awhile, things get ridiculous. But you can’t help but keep reading anyway.
Don’t read them, though, if you can’t imaginatively handle violence and sex, which in these novels are not presented in a pornographic way but in a disturbing way. Here is one of my complaints about Larsson: His villains are sexual transgressors. Sex trafficking, sadism, pedophilia, prostitution–these are definitely presented as bad things. But his good guys have open marriages, cohabit without marriage, experiment with bisexuality, and have a completely casual attitude towards sex that is also transgressive and yet belies how we are supposed to feel about what the bad guys do.
The Swedish settings are also interesting, and these novels are so immersive that you feel like you are in Scandinavia. Here is a completely secularized society that nevertheless has Christianity as its cultural religion. Everyone orients themselves according to the church year–such as Advent and St. Lucy’s day–and feels free to consult the friendly liberal pastor of the state church. Some of the young people, though, are attracted to “fundamentalism,” which their parents don’t approve of, but tolerate because it’s their kids.
The over-riding question is this: In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?