Swedish Crime Fiction

Via the Morning News comes this n+1 essay by Ian MacDougall about Swedish crime fiction, primarily Stieg Larsson, the author of the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and two other similarly named books. I grabbed Dragon Tattoo out of the free pile at my old job after I was in Madrid and saw dozens of different people on the subway reading it. I started in on it after I abandoned Infinite Jest in frustration. It was the perfect antidote for me; a coherent, plot-driven novel written in sturdy, easy-to-parse sentences with not a whiff of wordplay or irony. MacDougall suggests that Larsson’s books are an elaborate critique of the welfare state, and that interpretation is certainly there, though arguably Larsson’s condemnations are too heavy handed to be taken all that seriously as a critique. (But then again, some people actually regard The DaVinci Code as though it was the return of Feuerbach.) It is refreshing to see Larsson deploy misogyny to increase reader outrage rather than titillation — or is he doing both? My recollection is that there was something ultimately ghastly and Patrick Bateman-like about the novel. I wanted the female hacker character to be the sole protagonist; the heroic journalist character read at times like mawkish wish fulfillment on Larsson’s part.

I subsequently began reading the police-procedural novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which are much more nuanced and subtle in their critiques and bizarrely prurient about misogyny in a slightly different way. (The Wikipedia page on the authors offers this: “Wahlöö described their goals for the series as to ‘use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.’ “) Several of the early books in the series hinge on female nymphomaniacs and the social trouble they cause. The authors are somewhat ambiguous with regard to whether they see nymphomania as a legitimate condition or a misogynistic pathologization of women with the temerity to express sexual desire. These novels were written in the 1960s, and ideological fallout of various liberation movements were clearly on the authors’ minds. Readers are not left with a ringing, overemphatic indictment of any particular institution or attitude. But, as MacDougall claims for Larsson’s books, there’s a comparison to be made with the best seasons of The Wire — you get a sense of the complexity of social conflict and sympathetic rehearsals of various rationalizations.

MacDougall thinks Larsson’s books offer a fantasy solution to the social problems the Wire depicts as endemic and cyclical, and he seems to suggest this makes them superior.

Although there is an obvious analogy to recent American forays into the crime genre, like the HBO series The Wire, this only points to what sets Larsson apart—a particularly Scandinavian optimism that insists it’s never too late to effect real change. Larsson, unlike David Simon, doesn’t see institutional dysfunction as a tragic wheel driven around by some essential human flaw. Larsson the idealist believes that an opposing force, if applied strongly enough, can slow that wheel, if not bring it to a grinding halt.

I haven’t read them all, but Dragon Tattoo made me think that such optimism is precisely why they are inferior, escapist. Perhaps I have been working in publishing too long to believe that a crusading journalist can ever be plausibly taken as a idealistic force for change.