Until the posthumous publication of the ‘Millennium Trilogy’, Stieg Larsson was probably best known as a journalist committed to socialist causes, and his tireless work as an anti-fascist activist in Sweden. Horrified by the rise of far-right extremism in his country, he threw himself into monitoring and exposing these often shadowy and violent groups and gained an international reputation for the depth of his achievements and knowledge. But I suspect that, despite this, little did he anticipate the wave of influence the publication of his novel trilogy would have on the literary world and the global cultural zeitgeist overall. The first book in the series was published in Sweden as Swedish: ‘Män som hatar kvinnor’, translating into ‘Men who hate women’ (2005). It was titled for the English-language market as ‘The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo’ and published in the United Kingdom in February 2008. It was awarded the Glass Key Award as the best Nordic crime novel in 2005. It is the best-selling eBook of all time. Introducing the now, iconic character of Lisbeth Salander, a childhood sexual assault survivor turned prime cyberhacker, Larsson himself said that her creation was his response to the ‘systematic violence’ against women highly affected in Sweden. Their stories inspired him to take action against these crimes through his writing. In the novels, Salander is described as a pale, androgynous young woman who has hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She has a wasp tattoo, about two centimetres long, on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm, another loop around her left ankle, a Chinese symbol on her hip, and a rose on her left calf. She has a large black tattoo of a dragon on her back that runs from her shoulder, down her spine, and ends on her back. She often dresses in black, but most crucially, Salander is a world-class computer-hacker, with a photographic memory. She uses her computer skills as a means to earn a living, doing investigative work for Milton Security. While doing so she often aides weathered investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a stand-in for Larsson himself), who works for the ‘Millennium’ magazine (a stand-in for Expo, the actual magazine started by Larsson in 1995), based in Stockholm, with whom she shares a love-agitation relationship. Post-publication, Salander achieved overwhelming popularity and has become a poster child for the 21st century’s deeply damaged and distrustful era. This cemented Larsson’s place within the explosion of Scandinavian crime, which his novels so acutely reflect. Unfortunately, Larsson passed away in 2004, due to a sudden heart attack. His novels’ publisher Norstedts Förlag commissioned Swedish author and crime journalist David Lagercrantz to continue the Millennium series with Larsson’s characters, despite strong reservations from Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson, over ownership rights. Lagercrantz’s first novel in the series, ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’, was published in 2015. It was followed by The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye in 2017. His latest is ‘The Girl who Lived Twice’ probably, a spin on the James Bond movie, ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967).
The first thing to be said about the novel is how gorgeous the cover of the book is. It depicts the right-hand side of Claire Foy’s face (who is the current cinematic Salander) as she stares pensively ahead. One shouldn’t judge a novel based on the cover, but the minute I saw the cover, I had an instinctive feeling that I was in for a treat. And yes, this novel is a literary treat. It opens with a map of Stockholm, where most of the story will play out. It is pertinent to note that not many novels these days have a map at their beginning. For a novel to have one, reflects its commitment to geography and detail. A beggar has been discovered dead in the Tantolunden area of Stockholm. This man does not exist in any official records and whose garbled last words hinted at possible damaging knowledge of people in the highest echelons of government and industry. He is hardly 5 feet tall, sweats his way through a Stockholm heat wave wearing an expensive parka, an unusual accoutrement given his otherwise ragtag appearance. Inside his pocket, there is a crumpled piece of paper with Blomkvist’s phone number on it. The person, with his face disfigured and several missing fingers and toes, is soon identified as a Nepalese Sherpa. Evidence reveals that he may have been poisoned with a particular exotic brew. Blomkvist, meanwhile, is unusually tired and fed up while trying to finish an article about a Russian disinformation campaign and possible links between a high-ranking Swedish cabinet official’s financial business and a stock market crash. He is suffering from news fatigue because of depressing developments of rising right-wing totalitarian regimes around the world. As he discovers about the Sherpa and reaches out to Lisbeth for help, she herself is pursuing an old score. Her guardian Holger Palmgren is dead and she has gone away from Stockholm. In the meanwhile, her evil (literally) twin sister, Camilla, a tool of Russian intelligence, is harbouring her own revenge fantasies. Enraged at Lisbeth who murdered their father, whom Camilla adored — and was also sexually abused by — she uses her GRU (General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) and other Russian gangster cohorts to track down Lisbeth and exact revenge. She is almost killed by Lisbeth in the opening segments of the book, but in a rare case of human fallacy, Lisbeth misses her mark and is pursued ruthlessly by Camilla throughout the story. These two stories run parallel to each other, crossing and criss-crossing each other at various intervals in the novel. Blomkvist is drawn deeper and deeper into the story of the Sherpa and a fateful expedition on Mount Everest, which had taken place a decade ago in 2008. The expedition had consisted of the upper echelons of officials from the Swedish, Russian and American governments, as well as a couple of other people from the crème la crème of those societies, each carrying their own agenda. What starts as a by-the-numbers expedition turns into a tragedy with horrific consequences. The Sherpa, whose name is revealed as Nima Rita, is a witness to the tragedy that befalls the mountaineers. It drives him senile and he tries to tell the true story of that expedition to the world for the rest of the next decade. This story catches up with the survivors of the tragedy who each have a dark secret to bury about the incident. As he pieces the puzzle together, with incredible help from Lisbeth, Blomkvist realises that these revelations will have far-reaching implications on the seemingly ordered Swedish government and society. At the same time, he has acidic exchanges with a right-wing columnist named Catrin Lindas, a journalistic competitor, and out of the blue, the pair are intertwined. Lisbeth also a brief fling with an abused married woman named Paulina. She narrates her experience to Lisbeth, who proceeds to visit her husband and gift him a mark on his face with his own iron. This subplot however does not have much bearing for the story. But what does come out in the novel is Lisbeth’s incredible will to survive in the harshest of conditions. Repeated rains of sexual, physical and psychological assaults have left her numb on the outside. But she harbours an inextinguishable fire for revenge and justice on the inside, which combined with her genius level investigative skills makes her a formidable avenging angel and one of the most fascinating and enigmatic heroines in contemporary prose. As she survives death near the end of the novel and is reborn with a fresh vigour for justice, she reaffirms the adage that personal is always political. Her body marks are a sign of the violence inflicted upon her and she keeps them as a reminder of that history. This is what propels her forward. History has always been a crucial part of the Lisbeth stories. The history of violence, of cities, cult followings, mafias, societies and nations. These stories often explore how violence shapes societies and the scars it leaves on individuals which will shape their future.
Lagercrantz also captures the West’s obsession with the ‘exotic’ Orient especially with the ‘spiritual aspects’ of these ‘mythical places’ while also undercutting a strong colonial orientation of the West towards them. At one point, Lisbeth tells Blomkvist, ‘Isn’t the whole Everest thing one big hangover from those days, with white climbers and people with a different skin colour carrying their gear?’ The Everest plot makes for an interesting pivot to explore the motivations of most of the dramatis personæ, while also highlighting the sad dumping ground of plastic and other waste materials on the mountain. It reflects the current state of environmental emergency which the mountain faces. Officials have banned the use of plastics in the Mount Everest region in an effort to reduce the increasing amounts of trash left behind by mountaineers and explorers. This includes plastic bags, straws, soda and water bottles and most food packaging.
One can see Lagercrantz being a worthy successor to Larsson, however his writing does not have the same density or moral questioning of the same depth as Larsson’s. It also lacks the manic obsession and haunting exploration of the human psyche which Larsson brought to his novels. It can however be seen as a guiding light through Sweden’s dark socio-economic-political-sexual corridors. And for this gift, the world should be eternally grateful to Stieg Larsson.