I don’t remember exactly what it was about the cover of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that stopped me in my tracks, but I remember the first time I saw it, face-out in the New Titles section of my local Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was back in 2008). It’s a striking cover, and the faux-newspaper style blurb on the back cover sucked me in immediately. It’s one of the rare books that I bought and started to read almost immediately, despite the fact that, until the moment I saw the book, I had never heard of it.
Anyone who has ever spoken to me about Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will be aware of my feelings on the subject: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of crime fiction ever produced in any language, helped along by the strong protagonists at the story’s centre, Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fail to live up to the promise of the first book and are, in my opinion, much too long to hold the reader’s attention. There is a lot of background information that could have been cut without sacrificing the story, and the Millennium Trilogy – which, in the end, is only average – could very well have been the incomparably brilliant Millennium Duology. But that’s beside the point.
Lisbeth Salander is not your average heroine. It’s probably more accurate to say that Larsson’s creation redefined the whole concept and created one of the most recognisable and enduring female characters in the history of crime fiction. Larsson has been branded as a misogynist by people who seem to have missed the central point of the Millennium books: yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book about the mistreatment of women at the hands of men (let’s not forget, the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women), but for me, Salander’s very existence is all you need to see where Larsson’s sympathies lie.
Lisbeth is a character with a dark and, for the most part, mysterious past. We meet her mother briefly, and learn of the existence of a twin sister, with whom Lisbeth has little to no contact. It isn’t until later in the series that we learn the full story, and the role that her father – a Soviet thug – played in her upbringing. Now in her early twenties, she is seen by the state as mentally challenged, and placed in the care of a solicitor who has control of her entire life, a man in whose downfall the reader can take great delight, as it gives us the first real glimpse of who Lisbeth Salander really is.
With her tattoos and piercings, Lisbeth is as unconventional in her looks as she is in her personality. Fundamentally broken by the abuses in her past, she has found a way out of pain and misery to become a self-reliant adult who proves time and again that she is more than capable of looking after herself. A technical genius who can make computers acquiesce to her every wish, a skilled fighter and – strangely – a master of disguise, the socially-awkward Lisbeth is driven by a solid moral code that is often at odds with how people perceive her to be. The epitome of the modern day feminist, Lisbeth is a force to be reckoned with, and a character who endures beyond the confines of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, and the numerous films it has spawned, a fictional role model to which many – both men and women – aspire.
On a personal level, thinking back to when I first met Lisbeth brings me back to the period that introduced the “Dad” in my blog title to the “Reader”. I was halfway through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest when my son was born at the end of summer 2009, and I ended up having to finish the book by listening to the audio version – I have memories of trying to balance a week-old child in one arm and a huge hardback in the other, and failing miserably.
On 27th August this year (3 days before my son’s sixth birthday), Lisbeth Salander is set to return to our lives in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has taken on the unenviable task of bringing one of crime fiction’s most iconic characters back to life. If his novel Fall of Man in Wilmslow, which I will be reviewing here in the near future, is anything to go by, we seem to be in good hands. I’m looking forward to spending time with someone who feels like an old friend, a feminist icon who could just as easily be described as a nerd icon (as if we need any more!), and seeing where her next adventure takes her.
For now, though: Happy Birthday, Lisbeth Salander! May there be many more.