A Pippi Longstocking for the new millennium

2010-10-16 10:33

The world devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Gayle Edmunds explores the allure of the trilogy and its protagonist.

I remember the day The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo landed on my desk. I picked it up, read the blurb and decided to give it a try.

I hadn’t heard the buzz from abroad, but even the few sentences on the back about Lisbeth Salander were intriguing.

As was the idea of murder, conspiracy and dastardly deeds in Sweden.

Isn’t that the place where ­ABBA is from? Where everyone drives a Volvo? The home of Pippi Longstocking? Isn’t it ­famous for its level playing fields where no one wants for anything?

Of course, thanks to Henning Mankell, we all knew that there were some nefarious goings-on in the Scandinavian country.

But Larsson’s ­Millennium trilogy explores conspiracies ­spanning decades, from secret Nazis in our midst to heinous crimes at the highest levels of power, all delivered in an irresistible package of sex and violence.

Though many critics have argued that the first 50 pages or so are dull and pedestrian, I disagree. There’s nothing I like more than a slow, steady and increasingly mysterious set-up.

After all, I grew up on Agatha Christie, Naigo Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. And the structure of Larsson’s first book is very much in this vein.

A large, rich family at loggerheads; a mysterious disappearance; an island with limited ­access; and most important of all, a pair of ­unlikely investigators: one a 50-plus womaniser with a well-developed social consciousness and a nose for what’s fishy; the other a 20-something introvert with a gifted hacking technique, a sense of justice that calls her to Old Testament action, and the ­appearance of a ­Satan-worshipping waif.

Unfortunately, as catchy as the titles of the books are, the use of the term “girl” in them does damage to the writer’s feminist kudos.

But that is down to marketing decisions as the book in Sweden is called Men Who Hate ­Women.

Some have argued that Salander is the ­construct of a male fantasy, but the violence Larsson allows her to perpetrate undermines this ungenerous description.

After all, it is Salander who saves Blomkvist’s life and she who takes her own vengeance on those who wrong her. She waits for no man and indeed conquers her fear of them decisively.

I would argue that for a male writer to have created Salander at all is quite incredible.

­Interestingly, one of his inspirations in her ­creation was Astrid Lindgrin’s Pippi ­Longstocking; ­described as assertive, unconventional and ­possessing superhuman strength.

More than 200?000 South Africans have ­devoured the books and Larsson was the ­second-most successful author in 2008 after Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

The first tragedy to befall this ­literary ­success story was the sudden death of the ­author after finishing the trilogy.

As the books soared up bestseller lists across the globe, the bunfight over his estate started in earnest.

His lover of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, has been done out of her share by Larsson’s father and brother because he died intestate.

In an age where marriage is fast becoming ­irrelevant it’s amazing that Sweden has such ­archaic inheritance laws – another thing that no one knew about the country, but one I am sure Larsson wished his death hadn’t been the catalyst for exposing.

It is an ironic twist that after all his ­crusading for women, the one he loved the most should be victimised. It could be ­construed as a conspiracy worthy of ­investigation by Salander and Blomkvist.

10 facts about Stieg Larsson
» Stieg Larsson’s books have sold 23?million copies in 42 countries.

» His estate, which is worth R200?million, was defaulted to his father and brother.

» He lived with his partner Eva Gabrielsson for 32 years but died without a will.

» Larsson met Gabrielsson at a ­rally protesting the Vietnam War in 1972.

» The couple kept their address a secret, yet a serious attempt was made on Larsson’s life in 1993.

» He is the second-most popular author in the world after Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner.

» There is a 200-page draft of ­another book that is in dispute and rumours exist of the outlines of another six books.

» The first film attracted an ­audience of almost three?million in Scandinavia alone.

» South Africans have bought 200?000 copies of the trilogy.

» Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50. He smoked 60 cigarettes a day.

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