I just finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, Larsson‘s second book in his Millennium trilogy. Both books are quite good as suspense/thrillers but the second has intrigued me in a way the first didn’t.
Spoiler alert: This post features some minor plot points in the second book (so minor in fact that two our of three fellow readers I discussed them with forgot them).
While these books feature murder, corruption and misogyny the second book is a bit darker than the first in that one of the main characters (Lisbeth Salander) demonstrates a much greater degree of sociopathology than in the first book. As Wikipedia says:
He continues the debate from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of how responsible a criminal is for his or her crimes and how much is blamed on upbringing or society.
And here’s where Larsson is quite good. He creates a sympathetic character and then makes her do distasteful or horrendous things, I suspect to see how much we’ll forgive or demonstrate how much our morality is situational.
For example: In the beginning of the book, Lisbeth (a new found multi-millionaire do to some Robin Hood-esque stealing form the criminal) takes a trip around the world and eventually finds herself in Grenada for several weeks. While there, she engages in a primarily physical relationship with a poor, local 16 year old boy. When she’s ready to move on and return to Sweden, she leaves without so much as a goodbye and, apparently, without a further thought of the boy.
Now, I wonder how such a character would be interpreted if the gender roles were reversed. Imagine a rich European adult (I believe she’s around 30) arriving in a poverty stricken country, picking up a teenager and engaging in a relationship with them (in which all the decisions and power are with the adult) and then abandoning the girl when he’s had his fill of her. Is that really different from the sex tourism that creepy men engage in all over the world?
Now, that part of the story occupies about the first 30 pages of the book and has no direct connection to the rest of the story and doesn’t really provide any insight into Salander. So, assuming Larsson wasn’t getting paid by the word, why put it in? Is he trying to explain under what circumstances adults could have ‘acceptable’ intimate relations with teenagers? Is it OK since it’s the woman in a position of power rather than a man? Larsson is generally silent on this although he does write Salander in a more positive light than one could imagine doing with a male character in these circumstances.
I’d argue it was to parallel the male villains in the book that engage in a more blatant (and vicious) form of human trafficking and exploitation. Coincidentally, the female victims are the same age (around 16) as Salander’s boy toy and come from economically depressed areas. But here it seems clear that Salander isn’t an innocent defender of the exploited. She exploits in her own way, even if she doesn’t think so. And of course, her limited abilities of empathy prevent her from even thinking in such terms.
The other point, and reason for the title of this post, involves her behavior in a couple of scenes. Salander engages in behavior which anyone would (ok, maybe Theissen wouldn’t) regard as torture. In some cases this activity is directed as the ‘guilty’ who both need to be punished AND have information which she wants and threats of torture are reserved for ‘innocents’ who have information she wants.
Now, as I was mentioning this point to three people who read the book (2 women and a man) both women, independently replied with “Yes, but you have to remember what she suffered through.”
That struck me as odd, because that seems to be the same position of people who want to excuse torture by U.S. personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba or those ‘black sites’. Their argument is that 9/11 so traumatized the powers that be that they felt they had no choice, were terrified, and had to do whatever it took to prevent more evil from happening. Does torture in this circumstance (done by a female…against such criminals…etc) become, if not acceptable at least understandable?
Clearly Larsson is on the left side of the political spectrum so is Salander a lefty version of Jack Bauer? I know virtually nothing about Larsson but I’d like to think he was a bit craftier than that and actually presented people with an image of how things like vigilantism and torture could be made attractive to people under the appropriate conditions.