This is a review of the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The Girl Who Played With Fire.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest.
Millenium is a monthly magazine, based in Stockholm, with a reputation for investigative journalism whose purpose is to expose corporate wrong-doing.
The principal investigative journalist at Millenium is Mikael Blomkvist and the books track his unusual and uneasy relationship with Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With / The Girl Who) as their paths repeatedly cross during their quests to track down and bring to justice their respective baddies.
Blomkvist and Salander are both singular characters. They both live by unconventional and non-conformist moral codes. They are drawn to each other but their motivations and their definitions of justice are quite different.
The resulting tension is one of the many complex layers that make this trilogy much more than your average best-selling series of ripping yarns.
I should say now that this is mainly a review of the Millenium Trilogy, with a little bit of The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader thrown in for good measure.
Actually, for bad measure would be more accurate.
The Bourne Sanction is awful. God awful. A candidate for the worst book I’ve ever read.
Fortunately I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it to kill time and take my mind of the heat and the dust when I was doing my shifts in the back of the ambulance en route to Mongolia.
That’s the only reason I finished it.
It’s so bad that I was almost moved to write my first negative book review.
But I’ve decided to use it instead as a compare-and-contrast foil for the Millenium books.
(Which are a major storytelling achievement.)
First let’s compare and contrast the Girl and the Bourne.
Both protagonists have issues of the psychological variety.
Jason Bourne, as surely everyone knows by now, suffers from memory loss, headaches and debilitating episodes of guilty introspection as a result of the brutal training that turned him into a supremely efficient CIA wet-worker.
Lisbeth Salander (the Girl) is a socially inept introvert who suffered all manner of physical and emotional childhood cruelty.
Jason Bourne is a super-fit, highly trained, killing machine with the ability to think on his feet and improvise.
Lisbeth Salander is a geeky waif.
Jason Bourne, we have been led to believe, is nigh on impossible to kill.
But Eric Van Lustbader achieves what a whole string of Treadstone and Blackbriar operatives repeatedly fail to do. He takes Jason Bourne out.
He murders him.
It’s as clean and as clinical a literary hit as you’re ever likely to see.
Making The Bourne Sanction a serious contender for the book with the most ironic title.
Admittedly, Van Lustbader isn’t helped by Matt Damon’s portrayal of Bourne in the films of Robert Ludlum’s original three books.
If a personality profiling questionnaire asked me, I’d strongly agree with the statement “The book is always better than the film.” But I’ve never read Ludlum’s Bourne books. And I’m never likely to as a result of having seen the films first. I suspect that they might be the exception that proves the books-are-better-than-films rule.
Damon is the definitive Bourne.
The Bourne persona jointly created by him and director Paul Greengrass is troubled, dark, enigmatic and taciturn.
And Van Lustbader’s Bourne is sadly wanting by comparison.
Lustbader’s Bourne talks too much.
To the point of being far too in touch with his feminine side.
There’s a certain type of unthreatening guy that girls find really easy to talk to. And that’s the mental image that I get from the Bourne Sanction.
An unthreatening Jason Bourne?
Let’s-go-for-cocktails-and-a-good-cry-with-a-friend-who’s-a-boy-not-a-boyfriend, definitely no.
So the characterisation is all wrong.
And don’t even get me started on the writing.
I’m no literary snob. In fact I’m a big fan of the underrated art of populist storytelling as expounded by the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham, Jackie Collins, Michael Crichton et al.
But Van Lustbader takes populist and then runs it through some dumbing-down filter. He writes like a 14 year old who has been asked to pen an essay in the style of a populist novel. It’s over-egged and unsubtle.
The borrowed copy of The Bourne Sanction disintegrated somewhere in the Gobi Desert. So I can only quote passages that I’ve found on the internet. For example…
Today Moira was dressed in a wool suit, a silk blouse open at the throat. Her face was strong, with a prominent nose, deep brown eyes wide apart, intelligent, curved slightly at their outer corners. Her hair fell to her shoulders in luxuriant waves. There was an uncommon serenity about her, a woman who knew what she was about, who wouldn’t be intimidated or bullied by anyone, woman or man.
Perhaps this last was what Bourne liked best about her. In that, though in no other way, she was like Marie. He had never pried into her relationship with Martin, but he assumed it had been romantic, since Martin had given Bourne standing orders to send her a dozen red roses should he ever die. This Bourne had done, with a sadness whose depth surprised even him.
Settled in her chair, one long, shapely leg crossed over her knee, she looked the model of a European businesswoman. She had told him that she was half French, half English, but her genes still carried the imprint of ancient Venetian and Turkish ancestors. She was proud of the fire in her mixed blood, the result of wars, invasions, fierce love.
Yep, you can file parts of The Bourne Sanction under “bodice ripper”. And Van Lustbader applies the same heavy-handed, gratuitous-adjective-laden approach to the action scenes.
Forget it. Don’t even go there.
Jason Bourne dies at the hand of Eric Van Lustbader. Proof that the pen is mightier than the sword, mightier than the car bomb, various automatic and semi-automatic firearms, knives and all manner of improvised shivs.
By contrast Stieg Larsson brings Lisbeth Salander compellingly to life across 1,850 pages of elegant, perfectly paced storytelling. I hoovered the three volumes in under two weeks.
If the Millenium Trilogy were a piece of music it would be Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. Relentless, rhythmic, hypnotic tension punctuated by sudden crescendos.
And Larsson’s leading lady is all the things that Van Lustbader’s leading man isn’t – properly lonely, properly hard, properly fucked up.
Salander is often described as an unlikely heroine. I disagree.
For “unlikely” read socially inept, moody, judgemental, bisexual, allegedly psychopathic, probably autistic and, at the end of the day, female.
(One of the widely remarked upon delights of the Millenium trilogy is the portrayal of women as strong, central characters.)
But all of the traits that are supposed to make Salander an unlikely lass actually serve to make her more interesting. In the books it’s her against the world, but I was on her side from the beginning.
She is vulnerable and she has super powers. What is unlikely about that?
On the one hand she is a 40kg, 1.5m slip of a girl.
On the other she has a photographic memory, she is brilliant at maths, she’s a world class computer hacker, she acts decisively (sometimes violently) and she has a black and white view of who the bad guys are.
And she is much harder to kill than Van Lustbader’s Jason Bourne.
Salander survives the violent intentions of Estonian hitmen, the Swedish secret police, the Russian mafia, a half-brother who feels no pain, a rapist guardian, a psycopathic mass murderer businessman, and a Hells Angel motorcycle gang.
Her weapons of self defence are a Palm Pilot, her laptop, some self-written computer spyware, a golf club, a taser, mace spray, a video camera, an axe, the occasional gun, a tattoo needle, a nail gun and an anal plug.
(Not necessarily in that order.)
The Millenium books are populated by complex characters, held together by an original and gripping narrative, and distinguished by their head-on approach to a series of moral issues and taboos.
And if all that weren’t enough, you have the relatively unfamiliar and therefore intriguing setting of Sweden as a canvas for the action.
Larsson’s Sweden, like that of Henning Mankell, is at odds with the ill-informed, one dimensional view of the country that I suspect I share with many people.
It is surprising and selfishly reassuring to find that Sweden, that bastion of liberal common sense, has its fair share of corruption, racism, bigotry, perversion and scumbaggery.
So, if you like a lot of makes-you-think chocolate on your damn-good-story biscuit, go join the club of people who have been entertained and edified by these books.
P.S. There is a revealing and tragic back story to Stieg Larsson and his motivation/inspiration for the trilogy that I haven’t mentioned in this review. Find our more here, here and here.