Larssa Kyzer writes a thoughtful and well-documented response to Nathaniel Rich’s essay in Slate that I reacted to not long ago – in an article in L Magazine titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Fiction.” I think she nails it. In response to Rich’s equating of Scanidavia with Ikea, wholesomeness, and a peaceful society, she documents the stresses and subtle fractures going on in Scandinavian countries as immigration challenges basic assumptions about social identity. She also points out that the current wave of crime fiction is very much in tune with the critical turn Sjöwall and Wahlöö set in their seminal Martin Beck series. It’s a bit disturbing, really, to consider that readers not familiar with Scandinavia (beyond visits to Ikea) have so totally missed the undercurrent of frustration and rage in the Millennium Trilogy that comes directly from Stieg Larsson’s lifelong struggle against racism and the rise of neo-Nazi groups. Kyzer sums it up well:
Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.
At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn’t reinventing the genre here, he’s tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it’s misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. “You kept at it,” his colleague encourages. “You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders… That’s the important thing.”
By the by, her review, published some time ago, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is extremely perceptive. There’s no question that Lisabeth Salander is the gripping focus for the book, the chief reason why it has struck such a chord with millions of readers, but she questions the way in which a victim of sexual violence is depicted (or as someone said on a discussion list, how odd that a man who is writing about men who hate women creates a heroine who is essentially a male fantasy).
If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.
Wow, that’s exactly what I thought – only I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this paragraph.