Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya Horeck (eds), Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, October 2012

Stieg_LarssonRape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond is an excellent addition to the growing body of critical literature dealing with cross-cultural developments in crime fiction. The collection of essays achieves considerable diversity and subtlety in its different readings of the Millennium trilogy, as well as a fascinating consideration of influences, parallels and larger themes.  Larsson is a controversial writer, and one of the real strengths of this collection is the way it showcases critical debate about some of the most difficult aspects of contemporary crime fiction – its representation of sexual violence; its underlying socio-political agendas and its moral-ethical substance; and the ways in which audiences respond to a genre that is by turns conventional, clichéd, subversive and deeply uncomfortable.

There is lively engagement throughout with other critics.  The contributors return in various ways to what has often been quite heated debate about the character of Larsson’s female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, but always with an eye to assessing the wider issues at play.  Do depictions of female victimization function primarily as a means of criticizing the way society treats women?  The articles in the collection persuasively argue that Larsson’s compelling treatment of rape and sexual abuse is inextricably related to questions about female victimhood, revenge, justice, the conduct of political life and the relationship between the individual and the state.

In the first section, for example, Barbara Fister reflects on Larsson in comparison to the American tradition exemplified by Thomas Harris, whose depictions of monstrous pathology are juxtaposed with Larsson’s villains – men whose political and economic power entails violence against women.  In the second section, Marla Harris examines systemic misogyny through an exploration of contrasting attitudes towards of rape and revenge in the work of Larsson and Nesser; Katarina Gregersdotter writes about commodification of the body in the Swedish welfare state, and has some good insights into the themes of hopelessness and nostalgia in the work of Larsson and Roslund / Hellstrom; and Berit Åström’s paper, comparing Hayder and Nesbø, opposes the critical dismissal of their work as perverse or pornographic by arguing that, on the contrary, both writers use the representation of violence and dismemberment to launch critiques of society’s reduction of women to their sexual / reproductive functions.

This focus on the ramifications of sexualized violence opens up new perspectives on a range of key elements in crime fiction, and several of the essays reflect on the ‘conservative’ as opposed to ‘subversive’ possibilities of the genre.  Exploration of the nature of the genre itself, of cross-generic comparisons and of the dismantling of dominant paradigms is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection.  Amongst the connections illuminated are the relationship with American hard-boiled fiction; the manipulation of noir conventions in ways that subvert “retrograde scripts” of gender and sexual power (Brigley-Thompson); the blurring of generic boundaries between crime fiction and melodrama, and the ways in which heightened emotionalism and Gothic intensity disrupt our perceptions of good and evil, victim and perpetrator (Leffler).  Audience responses to the genre are probed – Fister, for example, writes perceptively about American audiences, bringing to the fore Larsson’s often playful appropriation of the conventions of crime fiction as a means of forcing readers to reassess and interrogate their expectations; Gregersdotter’s piece provides convincing reflections on audience responses to the novels of Hayder and Nesbø.

Another strength of the collection is to be found in contributors’ close, attentive analysis of the kinds of details that carry a novel or film beyond the clichés of genre – for example, of the significance of small gestures and expressions (Marla Harris); of the trope of disarticulation and “the vulnerability of the body in language” in Meghan Freeman’s essay; of pacing in relation to the affective experience of reading scenes of violence (Tanya Horeck); of the use of close ups and sound in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Claire Henry); and of individual scenes / shots in Philippa Gates’ subtle discussion of Fincher’s and Oplev’s film adaptations.

Several of the essays very effectively explore the multiple connections between Scandinavian and Anglophone crime fiction/film.  The collection opens and closes with thoughtful, illuminating comparisons, at the outset focusing most directly on fiction and then, in the final chapters, looking more closely at film adaptations of Larsson’s work.  Contextualisation functions throughout to frame the central issue of how writers and filmmakers negotiate the complex problem of ethical engagement with violent images.

Contributors to the first section concentrate on exploring Larsson’s novels in the context of American hard-boiled fiction and avenger novels (both Scandinavian and American).  Walton’s opening chapter provides a knowledgeable assessment of the relationship with feminist crime writing of the 80s and 90s, foregrounding “the politics of revenge” and the question of whether rape and violations of power can ever be solved by an individual.  The final section on “Ethics, Violence and Adaptation” rounds things off with considerations of some of the most controversial issues that have arisen in the collection.  Tanya Horeck, focusing primarily on Larsson, Lisa Marklund and Val McDermid, has thought-provoking things to say about our affective responses to graphic violence; Claire Henry, writing on “Rape, Revenge and Victimhood in Cinematic Translations,” considers the tensions between moral and ethical responses to rape and revenge in the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and Gates, in her astute comparisons of the Swedish and American film adaptations, persuasively argues that Fincher’s film transforms Salander into an ‘American’ action hero.

Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy makes a very valuable contribution to the understanding of the genre.  Gates’s concluding comments encapsulate some of the most important topics of contemporary crime fiction studies – the reimagining of particular narratives and generic conventions for different audiences, the need to be closely attuned to ways in which the choices made affect the positioning of readers / viewers, and the question of whether individual texts and films might (or might not) give audiences new perspectives on gender relations, sexual violence, abuses of power, and the ethical quagmire of retributive action.

The collection of essays is available from Amazon:

With its powerful images of rape and revenge, Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy has made a major impact on the contemporary crime novel. This collection explores the role that rape plays in contemporary crime fiction, examining the sexually violent images at the heart of the Millennium trilogy in its many guises – from novels, to Swedish film adaptations, to Hollywood blockbuster…Putting Larsson’s work into dialogue with a range of contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone crime novelists, including Jo Nesbø, Håkan Nesser, Mo Hayder and Val McDermid, these essays offer cross-cultural insights into how notions of sexual violence, victims and vengeance are constructed.