Tag Archives: Stieg Larsson


Hi there. It’s a time when many people eat too much, drink too much, and are miserable for lots of other reasons too. If this is you, I really am very sorry and hope things improve soon. You can console yourself with the thought that this occasion only comes once a year.

I’m no expert, but the occasion of this occasion is the birth of someone who remarked that he brought “not peace but the sword”. He went on to give some unpleasant details about this, and how right he has been proved! The “Prince of Peace” said he wasn’t, straight out, but for some reason people keep wanting to not believe it.

It is true that we don’t have to think like this. We don’t need to feel that we’ve got to get down with the swordplay, and that makes it our own doing, that we go on  doing terrible things. It’s our fault – all sides. We really can do something about it, if we want to.

This year, 2016, is about to conclude, and it won’t be back. Good.

While it’s been unraveling before my astonished gaze, I’ve been watching a Danish “noir” television series, The Killing. This had three seasons and I’ve brought the lot on DVD after seeing the final ten-part epic.

Generally I don’t watch television – see my blog post, “Scandinoirvian nights”. But like the Swedish police thriller Wallander, The Killing lifted television beyond its limitations to reach the standard of fine film-making – just. Television’s self-imposed limitations are present in The Killing, especially the apparent need to follow a template – each episode repeats the format so that by the end of the second installment the structure is an obstruction, artifice standing squarely in the way of art: the same music at the same place, the way the opening is interfaced with credits, etc. A film doesn’t have to succumb to this allure, though “franchises” inevitably face the same dilemma – witness the “Indiana Jones” spinoffs, or Star Wars, or James Bond: the very qualities that make the first take  a success, tend to render successors trivial. These challenges to film are however splattered all over television series as if they are de rigeur, and it’s not pretty.

Despite this, The Killing is worth watching. It is unlike Wallander in that the episodes are not complete in themselves; each of the three series needs to be seen entire. Fortunately the template was tweaked for each and the last series – which your unworthy correspondent saw first – is better than the first.

The Killing has a lot to say, but it is not always clear whether it means to say it. The series focused on a police homicide detective, Sarah Lund, who was the only woman on the squad. The acrress portraying her, Sophie Grabol, said that initially she had a hard time working out Lund’s personality, but when she realised the character was a man in a woman’s body, it became easier.

The brains behind the series, Soren Sveistrup, might or might not have enjoyed this characterisation. Certainly Lund is a fractured person with an intensity of focus that rattles her colleagues; once the bit is between her teeth she doesn’t let up, even when she is suspended. She is a genius at solving horrific murders, sees things others miss, and is thus invaluable. . .but. . .well, I’m not going to offer any spoilers here.

The series succeeds despite its limitations. If it is to be believed, Denmark is a festering sinkhole of envy, intrigue and corruption – still rotten despite Hamlet’s stable cleansing efforts all those centuries ago. The police force is not only not exempt, but also so flagrantly incompetent it is a wonder any crimes are ever solved, leaping to conclusion after conclusion in the rush to get a conviction. Innocent suspects are dragged into the station to be verbally abused and often have their lives ruined, to be replaced by other innocent suspects, while the police officers spend a lot of time blaming and talking past each other, when not ordering someone else to do something. Meanwhile, victims’ families’ lives are torn apart, politicians are dragged into the affair, while the culprit’s machinations suggest that Hamlet’s* ability to concoct and carry out an involved plan behind a facade was not a one-off and may even be a Danish character trait.

So Sarah Lund succeeds in a man’s world by being more than a man, and it is hard on her psyche. This says something, and for those of you who have followed this blog, you will know what I think, or if you don’t, try “Grand Larssony” and “Toiling with Troilus”. We are talking epochal realignments here, true progress – or not.

Scandinoirvian crime depiction is gruesome. Both Wallander and this series feature murders ranging from draining the blood of the victim while still conscious, torture and dismemberment, to the most brutal rapes and beyond. That the true focus lies in the human relationships of the series verges on contradiction, but ultimately that is the underlying point, and it is a political one, whether authors mean it or not. Certainly Henning Mankell, the man behind Wallander, was a “leftist” radical, and Millennium trilogy author Stieg Larsson’s politics were also well out there.

All this blood and guts and tension, and the year we are finishing up has included a new word imported from Danish into English: “hygge”, which means a kind of comfort that one finds in mug of tea and a blanket on a cold night, especially when shared with loved ones. In Norwegian the concept is given a name that is a semi-cognate of our “cosy”.

The murderers may go out and do despicable things before heading home for a quiet cuppa and a nuzzle with someone dear.

Hopefully this isn’t you, dear reader. Please enjoy this time, and head into 2017 with hope in your heart, a smile on your beautiful lips, and a song in your throat ready to greet the world.


*It has always seemed to me that Hamlet has been unfairly maligned for his supposed inability to act. On the contrary he was plainly a genius who overcame many obstacles to avenge the murder of his father and clean up a corrupt regime, though he was thwarted and died in the attempt.









Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Scandinoirvian days and nights

When I was a lot younger than I am today, I was a fan of a detective series written by a Swedish couple, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They have pretty much faded from memory now apart from one particularly chilling story, The Man on the Balcony, and a passage on child-rearing from that or another of the ten novels in the series.

The series they wrote was within the genre “police procedural”, which may more appropriately be thought of as a sub-genre within the detective story, which may be thought of as a sub-genre within the mystery genre, which may be considered a sub-genre of the thriller, which may be considered a sub-genre of sub-literature, a sub-genre of literature! which –

Enough. My point, insofar as I have one, is that these are shifting categories that can exist in their own rights or within larger “theoretical” constructs. They can overlap and never fit perfectly.

Between these two writers’ work and today Swedish fiction and film adaptations of it have till recently pretty much passed me by. I’ve had other concerns, and once I started writing my own thrillers, I left off reading them almost totally.

Stieg Larsson brought Swedish crime fiction back into focus for the rest of the world; I picked up on his trilogy only through word of mouth and then the films made from them – see my earlier post “Grand Larssony”. By then I had run into some other products of the criminal creative genius of what I have decided to call (and claim the credit for, deserved or not*) Scandinoirvian.

There’s a lot of it about. I haven’t seen much of it that has gone on TV as I don’t watch TV very often, and as I haven’t been reading them, the novels they are based on have also been foreign to me..  A Danish series that is raved over has completely missed me, for example, and only lately have I seen the series based on the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander character.

These are pretty good**, and I’ve now seen the lot – around 35 episodes that have had a beginning, middle and end, as a novel might. Living within the rules and realities of TV means individual episodes that are self-contained, while allowing for “development” in the lives of the characters. The characters have turned out to intersect with the lives of some of the actors portraying them, in one case tragically.

What most makes for the popularity of Wallander is Wallander, an all too human detective whose failings are acknowledged by the man himself and whose professional life ends in a bittersweet denouement it hurt me as a human to watch. The “police procedural” aspect is there, but it is there for Wallander to ignore…his “hunches” lead to solving the cases.

The cases usually involve awful crimes – abduction and enslavement of young girls, sexual predators and murderers of young boys, cults, and the like. They are frequently more bizarre than would ordinarily allow viewers or readers to suspend disbelief, but work because of the human focus rather than the procedural.

The series as film is also for the most part extremely well done, and a credit to the producers, who were also responsible for the Millennium trilogy. Acting is of high quality and the more technical aspects of filming – location, shot composition, sound and so on, are often stunning. Many of the actors through the second of three seasons featured in the Millennium trilogy, but by the end the producers had run out of them and were using newbies for the most part. In media as elsewhere, success breeds success and the worldwide bonanza of the trilogy seems to have brought new blood into the industry.

Despite all this, Wallander is still television, substandard compared to film, though well beyond the quality of what one has come to expect from TV. It was one of the striking features of the Millennium trilogy that the second and third were made for TV yet worked as film – largely, it seems to me, because they were edited down in time and gained a tightness and intensity that would have been missing otherwise. The full versions have been released but I can’t be bothered watching them for precisely that reason

Sweden has not got a monopoly on Scandinoirvian even if it dominates it. I recently saw a not bad Danish film that appeared as a pilot for a series on TV, but the real deal for me is from Iceland, where Jar City is set. It is a terrific police procedural that turns out to be a genetic sensation. While the author of the novel has written a number using the same detective, so far as I can tell there has been no other film.

But there is another, in a league of its own: Noi the Albino. It is a thriller and not a police procedural, and its astonishing climax is among the most eye-opening and jaw-dropping of the century. Like Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan War, it is arguable whether the blackness of this film is comic, or not. This simply-made but genuinely shocking film points a way forward for thriller writers and film-makers. That means it could take a generation for anyone to notice.

Thanks for reading.

*No hits on Google, unless this one makes it. As the mad scientist raves in Help! it is mine! Mine, do you hear? Except that it’s not – found it after a different order of search…sigh…

** The British series, starring Kenneth Branagh, has got rave reviews but I watched only one episode and dropped it. Too far-fetched and Wallander, despite Branagh’s acting talents and all the kudos, did not seem anything like fully realised.







Posted by on December 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Grand Larssony

To treat myself when I moved to a new city late last year, I bought something most people in the country I live in have had for years* – a big flat screen television and DVD player. Television watching is not my forte and I do it very seldom – but films via DVD, yes indeedy-roony.

DVDs have the virtues of being watchable at home, anytime you like, and being able to be watched as many times as you like. Despite having around 100 DVDs, most of them lie idle in their cases…watched once and then cast aside, or (so far) not at all, waiting for the moment I am in the mood for, say, Crash, or Secret LIfe of Bees. I have a problem with American films similar but not identical to my problem with television.

Some films, however, I watch repeatedly and recently two of these have grabbed my attention despite their (to me) obvious weaknesses: Parts 2 and 3 of The Millennium Trilogy based on the novels by Stieg Larsson,

Millennium swept the world as a sequence of novels** and the films managed to get Swedish cinema into Hollywood-style multiscreen chains. The first and most famous, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is very well made but  lack of realism at the centre of the plot spoils it for me even more than the outlandishness of the plots in the second and third, so that’s saying something.

Ironically, the first was the only one originally made for the big screen. The other two, with another director but the same two leads, were headed for Swedish television as a series when Dragon Tattoo was a surprise global smash. The sequels were edited for the cinema release and joined in the fun.

The second and third are really one story, while the first was more or less a story in itself. All suffer from plot fever – really unbelievable storylines – heated badly, using coincidence to drive things along. Sometimes coincidence is vital for a plot to really work in a novel or film. But it is well overcooked here.

In “filmic” terms the trilogy is well made and the last two, despite  extremely patchy editing and far from accurate subtitles, are better than the first. What draws me back to them, however, are the strong performances and characters ot the two leads, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the punk genius hacker and martial arts expert Lisbeth Salander, played respectively by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. Though in the first they interact a great deal, in the second and third they rarely see each other, and the dramatic tension that results is part of what makes the films so watchable.

The novels and the films have spawned cults. Websites are devoted to them – to the plots, the characters, the author…one I looked at proudly calls itself “the greatest Stieg Larsson fan site”.

A large part of the attraction of Millennium lies in the character of Lisbeth Salander, though why this should be so is not entirely clear – the punk tech geek martial arts supremo is far from the first kick-ass genius heroine in film, though her bisexuality may add something to the genre type.

What seems to me to have made for the success of the films is fine acting along with the graphic depiction of the rape of Lisbeth by her guardian, a rape that is gone over again and again – via her recording and in her mind.

Yet there is more. The relationship of Mikael Blomkvist and LIsbeth Salander is underlined  repeatedly throughout the last two parts: “you really care about her, don’t you?” asks his sister Annika, a lawyer about to agree to take her case. Blomkvist looks away, then down, then mumbles, “Yes.”, just as he mumbled “yes” to police detective Bublanski in part two. Yes it is love – over and above or past his relationship with fellow journalist Erika Berger, who frequently asks probing questions of him about the relationship. But yes also it is guilt, and debt: Salander saved his life in the first part, and then his career…he owes her.

How much this is clear to the rest of the world is not made clear in the films, and when after Lisbeth’s release Annika says getting her off was all Mikael’s doing, Lisbeth answers, “Yeah, but…” since a hacker buddy provided the key evidence, and since Mikael is also in her debt. When they finally meet again, right at the end, the ambiguous tension between them is not resolved and a viewer could take their future relationship in any of a number of ways, starting from none.

Larsson apparently planned a ten-part series before his death, and I don’t know if he had it all worked out or not.

In any case it seems to me that the films succeed because of the principals’ relationship, in spite of the increasing silliness of the plot, but that the portrayal of the relationship is vital: that the actors do such a fine job. There are many occasions when they could have spoiled things by overacting but the restrained and often monosyllabic low-key of the approach makes it work.

We love them because they are outsiders, battling against the world, and it is perhaps no surprise that the two are outsiders in real life, as a probe of Wiki will show.

The outsider as hero has a long tradition in western culture and indeed in the culture of the Western as given to us by Hollywood, and latterly of superheros as given to us (apparently) via vulnerable camouflaged nerds like Spiderman.

While the plot sees Blomkvist the driving force in freeing Salander, in the relationship it is Salander who is dominant, and, like a Western hero as played often by John Wayne, ultimately unreachable. It is she who gets Blomkvist off the hook after a prison sentence, she who saves his life as he is about to be murdered by a serial killer, she who does not flinch watching same go up in flames. It turns out to be she who tries to rescue her mother from an abusive father, she who provides the information to Blomkvist to enable him to destroy her persecutors: it is her connection with the hacker “Plague”, her ability at internet use and hacking, her tough-woman martial arts and electronic gizmo skills that turn up the basic information needed…Finally it is Lisbeth who is responsible for the death of her murderous half-brother and arranges the capture of the bikie gang complicit in her father’s sex trafficking and drug-running.

When Mikael turns up to tell her this latest news (of what she has done), their awkward meeting drags out words of thanks from Lisbeth, but an unspoken expression of puppy love from Mikael Blomkvist. Woman has come to rule.***

It is not that the good men in the trilogy are incompetent. They are not – within their scope, they are very able. It is that with one significant exception, without the guiding lights of the women concerned – Lisbeth Salander, Monika Figueroa, Annika Gianini – the men are lost. They are second fiddles, and they are good precisely because they are willing second fiddles.

That exception is Erika Berger, Mikael Blonkvist’s partner in love and in profession. She shows herself a woman of the old school, an era taking an unfortunately all too extended leave from even the most progressive of our societies. She is the one targetted by conspirators, who chooses to back down, who calls Blomkvist selfish for persisting and who “realises her error” when everything works out. It is a contrast that is made plain elsewhere – the policewoman murdered by Salander’s half-brother Niedermann looks to her male partner instead of focusing on her enemy, and is killed for her concern.

Lisbeth Salander knew how to do it.

Larsson’s thematic weakness, it seems to me, is that none of his women is evil. Others may consider it a weakness of my books that women – and sometimes gay men – are not seldom the “bad girls” or guys in opposition to (typically) heroic women.. This is deliberate on my part – heroes who cannot be villains are diminished in their humanity, and thereby their heroics. Evil is a choice for anyone, and in literature as in life, to be fully human means to have the possibility of evil and reject it.

Thanks for reading.

* It seems I am one of the last people in New Zealand to get these, which I have seen in beneficiaries’ homes. A friend saw my screen and laughed at its mere 32 inch size. **I have compared the synopses with the film to write this post. ***Larsson can be credited with feeling the zeitgeist and portraying successfully the kind of thriller I write, obviously better than I have managed so far. See my post Toiling with Troilus. I have deliberately chosen not to read Larsson’s books but have now watched the second and third parts many times, trying to discover their dynamic secrets. Recently I watched Noomi Rapace’s next film, Beyond: it is not actually. She has since moved on from her past life and springboarded from the Lisbeth Salander role into Hollywood style action thrillers that have apparently been well-received, an outsider who has become an insider: the future as now.

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Posted by on June 7, 2014 in Uncategorized


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