Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus

September 10, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 101 5 min read

covercovercoverAn investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer. A journalist’s creed is more like “tell, clarify, prove, cite, reiterate.” When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing. Such is the Millennium trilogy by investigative journalist Stieg Larsson, composed of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which currently sits atop every bestseller list in the country. It’s also one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read.

The Millennium trilogy, so named for the magazine where he works, is the story of Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his frenemy and sometimes collaborator Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive computer hacker who most likely has Asperger’s (and definitely has a dragon tattoo). It’s a thriller told with a journalist’s obsessive devotion to detail, classification, and explication, so that it reminds me of nothing so much as intermediate fiction, where a good deal of stating the obvious is common. Stieg’s characters respond to plot twists with broad, stock reactions taken straight from the repertoire of middle school plays. Their eyes bulge, they freeze in terror, they audibly gasp. When one character learned of a murder of good friends, she “put her hand over her mouth” and “sat down on the stairs.” She was surprised, you see.

Then there’s this description of happiness – “Her smile grew bigger and she suddenly felt a warmth that she had not felt in a long time filling her heart” – that makes you wonder if Stieg was an alien who learned about human emotions from a dictionary.

Most other useful information is inserted awkwardly into dialogue, such as when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a gun shot wound to the head, and the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:

There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?

In fact, although much has been made about Stieg’s unique heroine, she spends a large part of the second book in hiding and most of the third book in the hospital. The majority of those two books is told through the dialogue of other characters. Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski:

“Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.”

“My family comes from Armenia. And yours?”


“How can I help you?”

Stieg will never let anything happen in his book without telling you about it at least 97 times. No coincidence goes unremarked, such as in this conversation between a writer and his editor:

“I stumbled across something I think I had better check out before the book goes to the printer.”

“Ok – what is it?”

“Zala, spelled with a Z.”

“Ah. Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of and nobody wants to talk about.”

“That’s him.”

Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.

These constant, gratuitous recaps might be useful in a book that is hard to follow, where the plot moves at breakneck speed, or where the characters are multi-faceted and pulled by opposing motives. None of those conditions apply here.

Which brings us to another glaring flaw in Stieg’s estimation of humanity. There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women. This is not to say that hating women is the only thing that makes you a bad person, but rather that, in Stieg’s world, any major flaw is always coupled with mysogyny. The mobster/drug dealer beats and rapes his girlfriends. The corrupt psychiatrist has thousands of pornographic pictures on his computer. The bad cop just plain hates women.

Men Who Hate Women is the Swedish title of the first book, and the common enemy of all the good people in the book, Mikael and Lisbeth especially. Lisbeth is motivated by personal vengeance. Stieg is motivated by how perfect he is as a human being. I’m sorry, I mean Mikael. It’s easy to confuse the two, so let me set them apart. Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.

Having used his imagination and flair for nuance to create Mikael the character, Stieg sends him out into Sweden to avenge the oppressed. He faces down embezzlers, rapists, secret agents, and gangsters, then he exposes them in his magazine. When he is cautioned from publishing a controversial story, he actually says, “That’s not the way we do things at Millennium.”

In one gaspingly improbable scene, his superior sleuthing earns him a meeting with the prime minister, who thanks him for his work and starts divulging state secrets. One of the other perks of being so exemplary is that, with no effort on his part, women throw themselves at him.

In the 1000 pages or so of the trilogy, Mikael never says anything charming, never does anything romantic, never goes out of his way to woo anyone. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mikael falls in with a 6-foot blonde ex-gymnast federal agent, and this is his move:

“How long have you been working out?”

“Since I was a teenager.”

“And how many hours a week do you do it?”

“Two hours a day. Sometimes three.”

“Why? I mean, I understand why people work out, but…”

“You think it’s excessive.”

“I’m not sure exactly what I think.”

She smiled and did not seem at all irritated by his questions.

“Maybe you’re just bothered by seeing a woman with muscles. Do you think it’s a turn-off, or unfeminine?”

“No, not at all. It suits you somehow. You’re very sexy.”

Who wouldn’t want to hit the sheets with this guy? Nonetheless, he is irresistible to women. How do we know? Because Stieg tells us so. And because all the women he sleeps with in the trilogy (roughly half of the primary female characters) do us the favor to reflect at length at how great he is in the sex department. In what claims the (hard-won) prize as most tasteless passage in the series, a victim of decades of sexual abuse ruminates on how she thought she’d never sleep with another man, until she met our middle-aged, out of shape, Swedish Adonis.

Of course, even she is aware that he’s sleeping with someone else, his married best friend and co-editor Erika, whose husband is cool with it. Stieg so delights in this open marriage/lover situation that he re-explains the dynamic a handful of times each book. Erika, in turn, knows about two other people Mikael is sleeping with at about the same time in the first book. His sexual partners have a way of running into each other, having emotionless conversations about what they share, and then accepting that they can hardly be expected to keep him to themselves.

All the women in the Millennium trilogy are strong, independent, and intelligent, living in a world simply seething with men who want to abuse or repress them. Federal agent gymnast Monica, magazine editor Erika, and computer genius Lisbeth all appear as resilient victims living amidst rampant sexism. But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.

In any other book, I would see these tactics as pandering to the baser instincts of the reading public. But in this book, in which Mikael is so obviously a stand-in for Stieg, it’s just tacky. Especially since this Stieg/Mikael amalgamation has also appointed himself head of the Respecting Women Committee. For someone so earnestly devoted to preserving and protecting the rights of the modern woman, it’s strange that Stieg couldn’t conceive of one who could do without his manhood.

Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.