Andrew Nestigen discusses “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

By Chris Shores

Lisbeth Salander – the protagonist from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”  – provides an interesting snapshot of Scandinavian crime fiction, according to visiting lecturer Andrew Nestingen.

Justin Surgent/Collegian

Salander was deemed unfit by Swedish authorities to independently live in society. But after her guardian sexually abused her, she attempts – throughout the novel and its two sequels – to find and expose problems in Sweden.

And although the character Salander is making discoveries throughout the three books, it is really Larsson who is bringing problems to light through his novels, a theme Nestingen said is common in Scandinavian crime fiction writers.

“[The authors] make some connections to the way people learn, know and investigate and the kind of social criticism that that makes possible,” said Nestingen, an associate professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Washington. These social criticisms “come from entangling investigators in … institutions like the police or the welfare system … There are forces beneath them that are driving their function.”

The best examples, according to Nestingen, come from the works of Swedish author team  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Between 1965 and 1975, they wrote 10 police procedural novels, focused around a detective character named Martin Beck.

Beck’s investigations continually ended up circling back around to larger problems in Sweden, Nestingen said.

In one novel, there is a case of police brutality by a man with a violent military past. Nestingen believes it was Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s intent to suggest that the Swedish police force was becoming a “para-military force” to repress a potential revolution.

“The crime novel as a genre was a way for them to disseminate social criticism,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the state that’s the source of criminality. It’s the state that secures and maintains an economic injustice.”

In the same way that Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö channeled Beck to explore wrongdoing, corruption and economic injustice in Sweden, Larsson did the same 40 years later through Salander, said Nestingen. His books attempt to expose the country’s welfare system as corrupt, while also focusing on the theme of violence against women.

What sets Salander apart in Nestingen’s eyes is her ability to keep emotions out of her fact-finding process. She doesn’t stop to think why something happens; she simply finds facts and takes action, he said.

“She doesn’t question what she knows when she learns something it’s a fact,” he said. “Salander doesn’t theorize … for her all that matters are the cold hard facts.”

“Salander’s knowledge is repeated as empirical, self-evident … not theoretical, messy [or] under debate,” he added. “[The facts are] self-evident to her and transparent and justify her actions and that is a contrast to the tradition.”

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (in Swedish, “Men Who Hate Women”) was published in 2005, a year after Larsson’s death. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” was released in 2006 and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest” (in Swedish, “The Castle in the Air that was Blown Up”) in 2007.

The books were adapted into three Swedish films in 2009. An American version of the first novel was released to theaters on Dec. 21, 2011. Rooney Mara, who plays Salander, is nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.

Nestingen’s lecture was a part of UMass’ Scandinavian Impulses series, “Vengeance and Violence in Scandinavian Life and Culture,” a string of events sponsored by the Nordic Council.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]