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More often than not, the gruesome goings-on in Scandinavian crime novels have their root in everyday societal tensions and shortcomings: racial/ethnic/religious prejudices, the marginalization of 'outsiders,' governmental corruption, unacknowledged domestic abuse. Arnaldur Indriðason's Inspector Erlendur's investigation in Silence of the Grave
considers social complicity in a particularly grim case of domestic battery; Kerstin Ekman's Under the Snow
both delve into prejudices and tensions between Swedish townspeople and their indigenous Sámi
neighbors; Helen Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss and Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole both struggle with neo-Nazi youth gangs; and, of course, Henning Mankell's exhausted Wallander gets his fair share, too — investigating arson in refugee camps, shutting down underground child prostitution rings, the like. (This implicit social awareness has perhaps become more apparent in contemporary Scandinavian crime novels, but it isn't actually a particularly recent development in the genre overall: Maj Sjöwall, who created the classic Martin Beck police procedurals with husband Per Wahlöö in the mid-sixties and seventies, recently explained
to The Wall Street Journal
that in writing the Beck novels, the couple's "intention was...to describe and criticize certain changes in our society and the politics of that decade.")
It's then more accurate to say that Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and "the tawdriness of the crimes," but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.
At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn't reinventing the genre here, he's tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it's misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. "I made a lot of mistakes," Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers
, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. "You kept at it," his colleague encourages. "You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders... That's the important thing."