In the latest issue of The Monthly, Kirsten Tranter writes about the novels of Stieg Larsson, whose Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been recommended regularly to me by friends and family members with reliable taste. I clearly have commitment issues when it comes to books in series – the last trilogy I read was The Lord of the Rings at the age of 11, I’ve only read the eponymous first (though marvellous) novel of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and I am still to open a Harry Potter – but Tranter’s piece, “Stockholm Syndrome”, was the final nudge I needed to embark on the late writer’s trilogy of crime fiction.
I stopped reading crime fiction a long time ago, but I’m not sure why. Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a page-turning story. Maybe I just wanted to keep my body count to a minimum in the fiction I chose to read. But while I no longer take my fill of mutilated and murdered women’s bodies on the page, there are endless numbers of them on television and film for me to “consume” at my leisure, if not pleasure. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the number of gruesome crime stories that begin with an act of violence against a woman. It’s almost as if these stories cannot get a toehold on the viewer’s (reader’s?) imagination unless a dead female body arrests their attention. What does that say about our culture?
Tranter writes that misogyny is Larsson’s “most cherished theme”, and his heroine Lisbeth Salander its “avenging angel”. Very late in the piece Tranter draws attention to this conundrum of crime fiction:
Salander’s admirable strength as an avenger is predicated on her own horrific victimisation; she has to be raped and abused before the story of her revenge can be set in motion. This is the conundrum Larsson has confronted: how might it be possible to condemn men’s hatred of women without telling stories that illustrate it?
It’s a very good question, and this is why I need to read the books in order to find out whether I agree Larsson has confronted or even attempted to resolve the dilemma. Surely it is possible to write engaging novels about women characters whose fictional journeys are not predicated upon some act of violence or abuse?
I like to think Tranter is right; that “the success of Larsson’s novels proves the role that imaginative literature … has to play in generating critical debate about the most serious social and political issues.”