In the final book of his Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson turned to the nefarious activities of Sweden’s secret state for inspiration. It is the only area of public corruption this one-time editor of the Swedish Trotskyist journal Fjärde internationalen, and expert on the European far-right, had not yet exposed.
With The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Larsson (who died in 2004) produced a political/spy thriller that is more Ian Fleming than John Le Carré. It is not very subtle. The action often owes more to Larsson’s political message than the natural flow of the story. Not that this matters very much. It is still a cracking page-turner of a book.
The Millennium Trilogy has been praised for its originality (one of the central characters is a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome) and for Larsson’s political convictions, not least his feminism. But it is these political convictions that are, for me, the most perplexing aspect of his books, nowhere more apparent than in this last volume.
Since the end of the Cold War Sweden’s “secret service” — Säpo — has reorganised and become keen to present a public image that is, well, less secret. This is not a purely Swedish phenomena. It is true, for instance, of the British “secret service”, whose recently published official history has made the news for “allowing” the author access to (some) classified records.
None of this is a fundamental change of course. The spooks have simply turned their attention to different targets: political Islamism, the far right, anarchists and environmentalists.
Larsson’s story centres on a group of spies who refuse to “come in from the cold”, who have so much invested in the structures set up during the Cold War that they will defend them, literally, to their dying breath.
Larsson’s “detective” character Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is determined to uncover the conspiracy cooked up by the unrepentant Cold War spooks. The problem I have with this aspect of the plot is not that it turns on an unbelievable conspiracy (it’s a spy thriller after all), but Blomkvist’s ready and rather predictable alliances with the “good guys” in the policing and political system.
Of course Blomkvist is not Larsson. Blomkvist makes the decisions you would expect a leftish-liberal-journalist to make. Nonetheless, I get the impression throughout that Larsson himself believes in bourgeois propaganda about Swedish commitment to free speech and a liberal constitution, as something that is fine and sufficient — as long as it can be defended against the few “bad apples”.
Another perplexing aspect of Larsson’s books is his feminism. Larsson is to be applauded for attacking misogyny as he does. But his main female characters irritate me slightly. They are all, uniformly, strong, tough and good, or at the very least “misguided”, led astray by evil men. Why does attacking misogyny mean creating an unrealistic picture of “womankind”?
I can only imagine that this is something from this is something from Larsson’s political training. In the 1980s, orthodox Trotskyism adapted to radical feminism. The key assumptions in this kind of feminism were ones that did not treat women as fully-rounded human beings. Women were always the “victims” of a patriarchal system or impossibly morally pure.
Don’t get me wrong, I like tough female characters — and the feminism of the 1970s and 80s inspired some very good tough fictional female detectives — but I want to see some female baddies too.