Lisbeth Salander is certainly a striking figure in The Millennium Trilogy novels by Steig Larsson. A computer hacking whiz, brilliant mathematician, 4’ 11”, rebel, ferocious fighter, pugnacious, short-tempered, labeled by psychologists as schizophrenic, covered with tattoos, she’s a unique figure. She gives these novels a fascinating center, though I’d argue that her sometimes colleague and one-time lover Mikael Blomkvist is nearly as interesting.
Transfixing though she may be, when all her different dimensions are considered, she’s not very believable either. Whatever fix she finds herself in, she inevitably finds a way out, or someone finds a way out for her. She holds these novels together, though, along with Blomkvist. I found the first two Millennium novels to be entertaining. But they’re full of flaws and inconsistencies not to mention basic lapses in writing. But they’re interesting. The third novel, a continuation of the second, keeps the narrative going but is so full of talk and planning that it seems more exposition than story. At least it answers some of the questions left unanswered by the first two books.
In The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006), the second of the Millenium novels, Salander and Blomkvist are not speaking to one another, for reasons explained in the final scene of the first novel, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Even though she refuses to contact or be contacted by Blomkvist, they end up working on the same case. Larrson is fairly adept at interweaving and counterbalancing different plot strands, though after a while his method becomes predictable and a bit tiresome. In both novels the characters and the interwoven plots give the stories their interest. The crimes—the mysteries—that Blomkvist and Salander set out to unravel seem at first highly interesting but in the end involve conspiracies of one sort or another. It becomes easy to identify characters who are going to die (especially in the second novel). And finally the mysteries are not unraveled so much by logic as by painstaking research. This has its own interest, of course, but there’s an unwieldy discursiveness to how the mysteries unfold, so that it seems more that we’re being given a third-hand account of how they are solved rather than being permitted to witness or engage in the process directly. We can’t follow and judge the logic the characters apply to what they discover--we just have to take Larsson’s word that their conclusions are sound. This is especially so in the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010).
Larsson’s novels express a basic suspicion of government and of industry, especially of the interrelationships of the two. And even more fundamental is a conviction that human nature, with the encouragement of power and money, is corruptible. These are post-Cold War novels—they explore what happens to an intricate government, military, corporate, surveillance bureaucracy built towards the goal of opposing another such bureaucracy on the other side—what happens to those bureaucracies when the political underpinnings that justify their existence is removed? Another underlying theme is oppression of women, in every form, but especially violent oppression. Zalachenko, important in the last two installments of the trilogy, embodies this theme, but he embodies others as well.
I admire any novelist who can maintain interwoven plots for hundreds of pages. Larsson does just that, but even in the second novel, and certainly by the third, one becomes aware of the underlying formula he’s following, and of the inevitable ways in which events will unfold.