Murder, She Blogged: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Detective Work Outside the System

I’ve already written about the conservative leanings of the detective genre, supporting the status quo and largely making uncritical assumptions about what “justice” means for society in the aftermath of violence and crime. Other genres have dealt with these issues better perhaps (even science fiction), but it’s curious/upsetting that the genre with justice as its core subject matter hasn’t done better

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series of books and film adaptations has been widely criticized as misogynist. And, I agree with some of those criticisms. But at the same time I think that one of the not-so-examined reasons that Lisbeth Salander is an interesting character from a feminist perspective is that she, unusually, is a detective on the outside, with no faith in the system to produce a just result.

Plenty of detective characters are PIs, amateur sleuths, or disenchanted police officers, who meet resistance and corruption in their departments. But, by and large, the end-point of the story remains that justice is served; the guilty party is identified and popped into prison by the end of the episode/novel. Or, they might end up dead.

Children and young people detective characters, and conversely older female characters, are also outside the system, ignored and discounted by those “in charge,” but generally speaking these stories also end up with a criminal in prison and the status quo restored. Meanwhile, in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, seeks this type of justice, but the other detective character, Lisbeth Salander, does not.

(Spoilers to follow.)

Lisbeth, far from believing in “the system,” is a victim of the system; she sees it as unsafe and unjust based on her own experiences. Because of the James Bond-y over-the-top style of these books, these experiences are hyped up to a ludicrous degree, but at the same time are a reflection and amalgamation of real-life injustices.

Lisbeth has been systematically disenfranchised by the authorities, trapped in mental health institutions, born into a family with a violent father who beat her mother, and survived rape and abuse at the hands of authority figures meant to look out for her interests. Her ability to manage her own affairs is removed when she’s put under a state guardianship, meaning that as an adult she does not have control over her own life. Her reasonable response to violence and abuse is pathologized in a further attempt to control her. 

Her sexuality and choices about her body (who to sleep with, to get tattoos, how to dress) are described by the psychologist who locked her up as symptoms.

Consequently, when Lisbeth works as an investigator—either in her day job working for Milton Security, or assisting Blomkvist—her idea of what justice is is radically different. And the risks she takes are large.

You could argue that this is just more evidence that Steig Larrson liked to put his female characters through the wringer: hero Mikhael is still the protagonist, and still the center of the story. Moreover, Larrson gave his Lisbeth character a bunch of privileges having to do with race, able-bodied privilege, etc., and he’s also drawn her as a sort of superwoman sexy ubersurvivor. In the final book of the trilogy, the one most directly about “justice for Lisbeth,” she is literally stripped of all agency, remaining immobilized in a hospital bed for most of the book.

It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, but still the book shows a more complex relationship between victims of violence and the state than many other examples:

“Rapes should be reported to the police,” Modgid said.

“I’m with you on that. But this rape took place two years ago, and Lisbeth still hasn’t talked to the police about it. Which means that she doesn’t intend to. It doesn’t matter how much I disagree with her about the matter; it’s her decision. Anyway…”


“She had no good reason to trust the police. The last time she tried explaining what a pig Zalachenko was, she was locked up in a mental hospital.”

At the end of the book, justice is served in a courtroom, the web of conspiracy and corruption that plagued Lisbeth is dismantled from within, and the integrity of the Swedish criminal justice system is seen to be restored, in the typical fashion. And also Lisbeth has managed to steal a vast fortune. Added to this, the writing is of—ahem—variable quality, with some truly unnecessary digressions into the résumés of side characters. (Although all three novels are  page-turners, obviously). 

And yet, along the way, these bestselling books do open up a rare conversation in the detective genre about how the system itself can be violent, particularly to less enfranchised, less privileged people—in a world where women may face prison time for reporting sexual assault, just for starters.

Overall, the series itself is messy and flawed when it comes to its gender politics. But the creation of a character like Lisbeth does actually deserve some props, even if accompanied by multiple caveats.


by Jess Mccabe
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

I've afraid I haven't been

I've afraid I haven't been following this series closely despite being a great fan of crime fiction. But another series involving detective work outside the system that's written with a strong feminist bent (and not Larrson's phoney baloney feminism) is the Garnethill trilogy by Denise Mina. I've only read the first two but loved them both and can't wait to read the third.

I agree! The series isn't

I agree! The series isn't perfect but the character of Lisbeth is certainly interesting and worth examining. Though I questions Larsson's motives behind her creation, as a character I find her compelling and complex (with the one exception of the totally unnecessary and out o character boob job!). I'm glad to see that people are willing to explore this series and this character, even amid so many flaws!

One series that might be

One series that might be interesting in this respect would be James Church's Inspector O novels. Although their protagonist is, obviously, male, the novels work with some really interesting assumptions about the efficacy of the state to do...well, much of anything effectively, really. (Although, as novels written by a presumably white author about a more-or-less "failed state" (North Korea), Western privilege becomes an issue here). That said, however, the series derails some of these conventions in truly interesting ways by starting from a very different set of premises about what is meant to be accomplished in criminal investigations, and, I think, reflects back in usefully on the Western institutions, both literary and legal, that act as an implicit status quo for the audiences of the series (English-speaking readers in the West, I think). And, the first novel in the series is just really great.

Having a Hard Time

I have just started reading the first book in this trilogy and I am having a hard time getting into it...not only is it relatively boring in the beginning...too much emphasis on the back story or Blomkvist but I also find it hard to get into the character of Lisbeth...although her personality and mystery is intriguing the way she is treated by other characters in somewhat demeaning and quite frankly annoying! I am hoping that the farther I get the more I will come to enjoy the book but so far its not looking so good...

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