The Man Who Blew Up the Welfare State

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire. via
  • Stieg Larsson. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Trans. Reg Keeland.) Knopf. September 2008.
  • Stieg Larsson. The Girl Who Played with Fire. (Trans. Reg Keeland.) Knopf. July 2009.
  • Stieg Larsson. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (Trans. Reg Keeland.) Knopf. May 2010.

To read the 1,802 pages of the Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is to be told that, for all their perceived virtue, the institutions of social democracy are a farce. In Larsson’s books, American readers will find the Sweden they expect: the welfare-state comforts, Volvo security, and Ikea practicality for which the country is known. But they will also find a country they didn’t expect. In this Sweden, the country’s well-polished façade belies a broken apparatus of government whose rusty flywheels are little more than the playthings of crooks. The doctors are crooked. The bureaucrats are crooked. The newspapermen are crooked. The industrialists and businessmen, laid bare by merciless transparency laws, are nevertheless crooked. The police and the prosecutors are crooked. And the criminals, of course, are crooked, though not always: it’s often the case that criminal acts committed by do-gooders in the name of justice—from petty larceny to massive bank fraud—are the only means by which to overcome the comprehensive failure of the world’s most comprehensive welfare system.

In Larsson’s trilogy it’s also the case that most, if not all, of these crooks hate women. The first volume’s Swedish title is Män Som Hatar Kvinnor—in English, Men Who Hate Women—a title international publishers chose to tone down. (The French put the problem in the past tense, Men Who Didn’t Love Women.) Sweden may have attained heights of gender equality only dreamed of in other parts of the world but, if we’re to believe Larsson, that apparent moral superiority is merely cosmetic, concealing pervasive misogyny at every level of society.

These are Larsson’s twin themes: the failure of the welfare state to do right by its people and the failure of men to do right by women.

For even the most casual reader of Swedish crime fiction, Larsson’s themes will come as no surprise. Swedish crime fiction—and in our historical moment, Sweden is the crime fiction capital of the world, with growing suburbs in Denmark and Norway—owes its greatest debt to its British forebear, whose plots it cheerfully rips off. But the Swedish model distinguishes itself by infusing these plots with a social and political consciousness. Agatha Christie, the paradigmatic British crime novelist, was more likely to deploy ethnic stereotypes than to interrogate or denounce them. If Swedish crime fiction also owes a certain debt to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the great chroniclers of New Deal America, who certainly did try for something of a social consciousness, the Swedes show how Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe might have faired under the sunny gaze of a full-size welfare state. The Americans, studying the decay of cloudless Depression California, grew hard-boiled; their Swedish counterparts, pale-skinned but with Bergman-sized consciences, practically fry.

The Swedish crime novelist par excellence is Henning Mankell. His Inspector Kurt Wallander novels of the 1990s are widely credited with setting off the current wave of Swedish crime fiction, a geo-literary subgenre so distinctive the Germans have given it a neologism: Schwedenkrimi. Mankell has dominated the genre ever since, and he and his heirs are no strangers to novels that tackle moral issues. Mankell addressed misogyny in The Fifth Woman, and his literary progeny—not to mention earlier Swedish crime novelists, notably the husband-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—are also well-known for critiques of Western socialism. As Slavoj Žižek notes in a recent essay in the London Review of Books, the leitmotif of Mankell’s crime fiction oeuvre has always been “the long and painful decay of the Swedish welfare state.” Like the stench of decomposing trash, murder mysteries seem to radiate from the welfare state as it rots in the Scandinavian snow.

Together with the quaint aesthetics of the Scandinavian countryside, this socialist backdrop is precisely what makes the genre work. It’s shocking enough when a bloated corpse turns up floating in Stockholm’s pristine, well-managed waterways or when a serial killer disrupts the huddles of little red cottages that dot the Swedish countryside. The lingonberry jam on the detective’s afternoon waffles looks a darker shade of red; the friendly smile of the average Jens on the street twists into a sinister grin. But the complicity of the welfare state heightens the tension. The system has a hand in all aspects of Swedish life. If you can’t trust the system, what can you trust? In the best Swedish crime novels, including Larsson’s, the cradle-to-grave welfare system takes care of its wards. But you start to wonder just which meaning of “to take care of” that phrase refers to and whether the all-too-visible hand of the state isn’t rocking the cradle over an open grave.

Larsson died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2004. Heart failure, age 50, and, as romantic critics like to remind us, just before his first novel was published and just after he handed in the draft of his third. If Larrson hadn’t died, he might have dethroned Mankell as the reigning Kaiser of Schwedenkrimi. While adhering strictly to the classic plot structures—the locked-room mystery, the police procedural, the courtroom drama—the Millennium trilogy masterfully produces the tension that sets the Swedish subgenre apart. Just before one of Larsson’s protagonists is raped by her state-appointed guardian, Larsson notes that the man’s apartment is furnished with “light-colored furniture” of “birch and beechwood.” Writing within this familiar framework, Larsson managed nevertheless to distinguish himself from his crime-minded countrymen.

In the most superficial sense, he did this by becoming a global publishing phenomenon. In 2008, Larsson was the bestselling author in Europe and the second bestselling author in the world—this despite the fact that the trilogy’s final volume had yet to hit most European bookstores. In the US, the first volume had only been available for three months.

Larsson’s ascent is all the more remarkable because he tackled fairly sophisticated subject matter—from minute problems distinct to the Swedish welfare state to European sex trafficking to the global problem of misogyny—and resisted the urge to prescribe hasty or cliché cures for the social ills he described. Larsson’s sentences, well-preserved by Reg Keeland’s English translation, possess all the elegance of a grocery-store thriller. (In a warehouse showdown with a dangerous villain, a character finds herself “locked inside an area of about a thousand square meters with a murderous robot from hell.”) But at the level of narrative, his books are hardly the stuff of pulp paperbacks.

More importantly, Larsson has distinguished himself by refusing to stand in Mankell’s shadow, no small feat for a Swedish crime writer. The Millennium trilogy never conforms to the sullen-eyed worldviews and depressive, introspective detectives that characterize the genre. His protagonists—the beleaguered lefty journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tortured punk hacker Lisbeth Salander (of dragon tattoo fame)—aren’t beaten down by the unjust world they encounter. They’re outraged by it. And their outrage is justified by the fact that Larsson brings the ostensibly protective welfare state to the fore, making it not just a backdrop but a central force and, in a way, a villain. A different kind of villain calls for a different kind of protagonist, and it’s no coincidence that Larsson gave his lead roles to a journalist and a hacker rather than a detective and a femme fatale. Blomkvist and Salander both observe like classic detectives, but unlike them, Blomkvist and Salander make their observations public. Blomkvist shouts his findings from the old soapbox of print media while Salander broadcasts hers anonymously over the internet. The whodunit becomes the exposé.

In Larsson’s three novels, Blomkvist and Salander expose not only a vast host of Volvo-driving, H&M-clad villains—bad guys large and small, government officials and petty criminals—that apparently scheme at all levels of Swedish society, but also the institutions that allow those villains to operate. Institutions are important to Larsson’s villains. Mankell critiqued the welfare state indirectly, using the crimes in his novels to touch on issues related to the failure of the system. Larsson’s critiques, however, are anything but glancing. His villains are, more often than not, agents or at least deft manipulators of the Swedish welfare state.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the state successfully but erroneously prosecutes Blomkvist for libeling, in the eponymous Millennium magazine he runs, a corrupt Swedish businessman. Meanwhile, Salander gets raped by her state-appointed legal guardian. As a teenager, she was declared non compos mentis, which in Sweden means that even as an adult she’s forbidden to handle her own affairs; her guardian knows she has no means of recourse. Later, Salander and Blomkvist wind up—more or less by coincidence, a technique Larsson is a little too fond of—working together to solve the cold-case disappearance of a Swedish industrialist’s niece. The investigation reveals that even, or perhaps especially, in the egalitarian welfare state, money permits wealthy male woman-haters to enact their impulses in the most abhorrent and violent ways.

In each of the sequels, the number of villains multiplies, their ties to the welfare state growing increasingly proximate. The Girl Who Played with Fire finds a freelance journalist and his girlfriend, an academic, murdered just before the publication of a report on Eastern European sex-trafficking that promises to name names in the upper echelons of the Swedish state. Salander’s guardian is found murdered not long thereafter. The police determine that a gun with Salander’s prints on it is the murder weapon in all three killings and she becomes the focus of a nationwide manhunt. Blomkvist, believing her innocent, sets out to clear her name. His investigation reveals an underworld network of sex-traffickers tied to a mysterious Keyser Söze figure called Zala. Zala turns out to be the cruel and disfigured Russian ex-spy Alexander Zalachenko, a coldwar turncoat who’s one of the Swedish intelligence community’s best-kept secrets and, incidentally, Salander’s estranged, alcoholic, wife-beating father.

The final volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, introduces a shadowy syndicate of Swedish police and intelligence officers that goes to great lengths to protect Zalachenko. (His existence, if revealed, we’re told, would bring about the largest scandal in Swedish political history.) The group manipulates the welfare system to cover its tracks. Most notably, it uses Sweden’s guardianship laws to control the entirely competent—if antisocial—Salander, who, in her youth, tried to kill her misogynistic father after he nearly beat her mother to death. The novel focuses on Blomkvist and Salander’s attempts to expose the men who have kept her down, particularly the sadistic government psychiatrist who initially arranged to have her declared socially incompetent.

There are so many corrupt men who hate women in every corner of Larsson’s Sweden that to present them all in a concise manner would be impossible. They range from editors of major dailies to the members of Scandinavia’s ubiquitous biker gangs to police to lawyers to medical doctors to criminal masterminds right out of a Roger Moore-era James Bond film. The one thing that unites this mélange of women-hating crooks is that the welfare state sponsors or at least supports their crimes. The state itself is the greatest villain.

Statistics introduce each section of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man”; “92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.” These entr’actes, with their reliance on hard facts, suggest that the crime novel we’re reading is not a work of pure imagination. Even in progressive Sweden, more than a few men don’t treat women the way they should, and the elaborate welfare system meant to ensure and enforce Sweden’s progressive ideals hasn’t been doing its job. Larsson doesn’t cite the source of these figures, but we don’t have to look much farther than Larsson’s life—or, more precisely, his death—to find an anecdote that suggests much the same thing.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1972, 18-year-old Stieg Larsson, fresh from his childhood in northern Sweden, met Eva Gabrielsson. The two hit it off and not long afterward moved into a Stockholm apartment together. Gabrielsson went on to become an architectural historian; Larsson eventually found work at the Swedish newswire TT. A couple of decades passed, and Larsson quit his job to devote his time and energy to Expo, an anti-fascist magazine he founded, and to serve as the Sweden correspondent for its British sister publication, Searchlight. Along the way, Larsson edited science fiction fanzines and a Trotskyist journal called Fjärde Internationalen (The Fourth International). Naturally, none of these jobs was especially lucrative, and for over thirty years Gabrielsson did her share to support her partner.

The couple never married. The reason for this wasn’t high-minded or idealistic. Larsson and Gabrielsson didn’t reject the institution of marriage nor did they avoid marriage as an unnecessary gesture. Their reason was far more practical than that. In Sweden, married couples are required to register their home address with a state database, which is then searchable online. (In Sweden, even individual tax records are freely available to the public.) Larsson believed that his work with Expo put him at risk, and he had reason to protect his and Gabrielsson’s privacy. Expo exists to expose far-right and neo-fascist movements and the people behind them. The consequences for outing such people in Sweden have proved themselves over the years to be very real. One of the best-known cases is the murder of trade unionist Björn Söderberg. In 1999, Söderberg blew the whistle on a man named Robert Vesterlund, a boardmember of a Stockholm chapter of the Swedish Commercial Employees’ Union who, without his colleagues’ knowledge, also edited a neo-Nazi journal. Vesterlund lost his chair on the board and was forced to leave his job. A month later, three young neo-Nazi thugs turned up at Söderberg’s suburban home and shot him seven times.

Normally, the fact that Gabrielsson and Larsson never married wouldn’t be noteworthy. Living together and for that matter having children outside of wedlock is common in Sweden, where an institution akin to common law marriage, samboförhållande, dictates the legal relationship of unmarried couples. The problem arose when Larsson died. Showing a remarkable lack of foresight for a middle-aged man whose average day included multiple junk-food runs, sixty cigarettes, and very little sleep, he had failed to execute a will. (In a 1977 will, which was unwitnessed and therefore null and void, Larsson left his estate to a branch of the Communist Workers League.) Under Swedish inheritance law, the rights to Larsson’s assets went to his next-of-kin—his reportedly estranged father and brother, Erland and Joakim, who proceeded to cut out Gabrielsson, refusing to grant her any access to Larsson’s estate.

The Millennium decology Larsson was planning to write at the time of his death was to finance his and Gabrielsson’s retirement. Now worth the kronor equivalent of over 30 million dollars and counting, the trilogy alone would have meant a life of ease. As it is, Gabrielsson has yet to see a krona of the royalties. Instead, she’s losing money on a legal battle with Larsson’s family, a case the unflinching bureaucracy of the welfare state is unlikely to let her win. To make matters worse, Erland and Joakim have demonstrated their own borderline misogyny. They say they’ve shut Gabrielsson out because she’s mentally unstable, an excuse that smacks of the unsavory Victorian diagnosis of female hysteria, and also bears a distant resemblance to the legal incompetence imposed, in Larsson’s fiction, upon Salander. “I mean, she’s had to see a therapist and the like just to get back on her feet,” Erland told Sweden’s national broadcaster SvT. Moreover, the Larssons have tried to polish their public image by repeatedly playing on the stereotypes of the modest, ostensibly progressive Swede that the Millennium trilogy sought to undermine. As they insisted to Swedish media: “We drive the same cars and live in the same houses as before.”

In November of this year, the Larssons tried to take care of Gabrielsson in their own way, offering her about 3 million dollars with “no strings attached.” They didn’t offer it to Gabrielsson directly though; they had the broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet do it for them, with Joakim adding the condition that she must “call and say, ‘Yes, please.'”

The final volume of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is titled, in Swedish, Luftslottet Som Sprängdes, literally The Castle in the Air That Got Blown Up. The title suggests the point at which Larsson departs from his contemporaries. The typical Swedish detective solves the crime but leaves intact what facilitates it—the broken institutions of the welfare state. The castle in the air, the delusion of a perfect progressive utopia, persists after the case is closed. For Larsson the story’s not over until the state’s blown up, if only in the reader’s mind.

Although there is an obvious analogy to recent American forays into the crime genre, like the HBO series The Wire, this only points to what sets Larsson apart—a particularly Scandinavian optimism that insists it’s never too late to effect real change. Larsson, unlike David Simon, doesn’t see institutional dysfunction as a tragic wheel driven around by some essential human flaw. Larsson the idealist believes that an opposing force, if applied strongly enough, can slow that wheel, if not bring it to a grinding halt.

The hidden conservatism of the Schwedenkrimi (and the hardboiled American crime fiction that inspired the genre) thus takes on a hint of Larsson’s youthful Trotskyism. There’s a tendency for the international community—and, if my Swedish friends are to be believed, Swedes themselves—to view countries like Sweden as morally superior, gender-equal socialist paradises. (I live in Norway, and I’ve seen it firsthand here.) But the welfare state, like any utopia, is never finished. For many years now, crime has been on the rise in Sweden. Close to a fifth of the population is unemployed or on long-term sick leave or disability, paid for by the state. Immigrants have been arriving since the 1950s and Sweden’s Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality still hasn’t figured out how to assimilate them. The Swedish industrial base has all but crumbled. To believe in the gemütlichkeit of the “people’s home”—as the Swede’s call their welfare state—amid all these inadequacies is to give up on the future, to make the perfectable present into a dystopia by accepting its failures along with its successes.

We see the real nature of Larsson’s refusal to acquiesce amid Sweden’s undeniable achievements in the conclusion to his final novel. The acquittal of the wrongly accused Salander isn’t enough. Nor is the arrest of the misogynistic government agents who used the welfare state to frame her. The sign that the novel has begun to draw to a close is the introduction of an investigative series on Sweden’s TV4 that promises to expose these agents and the institutions they manipulated. Only when the story’s out in the open can the crime even begin to be solved.

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