My Six Years with Lisbeth Salander by Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw reports on his recent Scandinavian tour

People in Glass Houses

I had begun to feel like one of the barely-dressed, elaborately made-up women who look invitingly at you from behind their lace-curtained glass windows in Amsterdam’s red light district. A variety of people — male and female – shuffled past, and glanced at me behind my (uncurtained) window, sometimes smiling and tentatively waving, sometimes just nodding. And when their moment came, they were ushered into the small dark room I sat in, to spend 15 (hopefully stimulating) minutes with me. But the services I was to provide during those 15 minutes were of an intellectual rather than a carnal nature (I’m not sure I’d get too many offers for the latter these days – even in a darkened room).

In fact, I was sitting in a well-equipped, high-tech recording studio near Marble Arch (a little place off the Edgware Road), working my way steadfastly through a schedule of journalists from various radio networks, with the aid of just a Diet Coke and a faltering memory. The journos were turning up on the quarter hour to talk to me about just one subject, one of my specialités de la maison: Lisbeth Salander. The occasion was the Blu-ray release (by Sony) of David Fincher’s film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’d expected to be doing such duties when the film reached the home market; it’s now customary that when there is some new addition to the Larssonian universe my phone begins to ring – but, hey, I’m not really complaining.

Tattoos and Sex Toys

The next day my services as the Scandinavian go-to guy were in demand again at the spanking new Covent Garden London Film Museum, which was being opened with a flourish for the glitzy ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Experience’, a high-profile event for the section of the new museum which includes costumes and artefacts from the Fincher film (including some fearsome silver-plated sex toys), along with creative personnel talking about its making, including the caustic Steven Berkoff – so excellent with his (uncharacteristic) underplaying in the film. I hadn’t chatted to him in ten years (I did an event with him at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, where he excoriated the class-ridden nature of British theatre), and was pleased to find him as entertainingly unbuttoned as ever. I noted that the average age of journalists at the event appeared to be fourteen. Or perhaps it was the ‘aren’t-policemen-getting-younger’ syndrome.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Salander?

In lieu of Daniel Craig (filming the new James Bond film with Sam Mendes, and therefore hors de combat for talking about his take on Mikael Blomkvist), I was there to talk about the whole Larsson phenomenon. Fortunately, invited guests knew that they were getting me rather than 007, so I didn’t have to put up with ill-conceived grimaces of disappointment. The evening was a great success, with copious wine, on-camera interviews, competitions and temporary dragon tattoos being applied to all and sundry (I demurred), so it was only on stepping out into the rainy Covent Garden night that I was able to muse on something that has preoccupied me increasingly over recent months: just how much more will I have to talk about Lisbeth Salander? I’ve done it (gamefully, I think) for six years, since I first reviewed the books in the Independent and wrote a piece about Stieg Larsson in The Times, shortly after his posthumous CWA Dagger win (the one at which he didn’t show for the photoshoot).

There will not be any more Stieg Larsson novels centred on his sociopathic heroine (unless his ex-partner and the Larsson estate can get together and sort out the situation over that final unfinished draft, whatever state it is in), and who knows whether or not there will be Daniel Craig/Rooney Mara films of the two remaining books, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest – but I’m sure my phone will be ringing again. I have only myself to blame — after writing the first biography of Stieg, I followed it up with Death in a Cold Climate, a study of the amazing success of Scandinavian crime fiction (and film and TV), so it’s hardly surprising that radio types want me to comment on The Bridge or season three of The Killing. And to some degree I’m happy to do my duty — after all, at this point, it’s not as if I had to do any homework; doing regular interviews with far-flung foreign radio stations and newspapers, I now feel I know as much about Lisbeth as her creator. And here’s a secret: I have found a little wrinkle to keep everything fresh for myself — although (inevitably) one has to discuss certain familiar areas, I strive (really hard) to think of something different to say every single time — or at least ring the changes on these themes. Although after six years of talking about Lisbeth, it has certainly become more of a challenge.

Malign Elves

The youthful Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, both elfin and malign, was something new in crime fiction (albeit using existing prototypes), with her alienating punk appearance; facial jewellery, ill-matched clothes and the dragon tattoo of the title, views of which are vouchsafed to her lovers of whichever sex. But despite her forbidding, don’t-screw-with-me looks, she is immensely vulnerable, struggling with personal demons. Readers soon realised Salander was an irresistible character, and the making of films of the books was inevitable. After Noomi Rapace’s first version, Rooney Mara created a very discreet screen incarnation. David Fincher’s film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a creditable remake/reimagining, with many impressive things that dispel any notion of the usual ill-advised Hollywood remake of a non-English-language film. As Salander, Rooney Mara may initially register less of an impression than the memorably gritty Rapace — until halfway through the film, and then the actress (adopting a vaguely Swedish accent — which comes and goes – in contrast to Daniel Craig’s received pronunciation) really makes her mark. Paunchy middle-aged journo Blomkvist/Craig has James Bond’s abs, but (to his credit) never looks heroic – the spectre of 007 is kept firmly at bay.

There is, perhaps, a general softening: Lisbeth is more humanised than the Rapace version (there is a Rain Man-style breakthrough for this carefully established sociopathic personality), and the violence and sexual abuse are handled differently from the Swedish version (though Fincher pulls no punches). The change of a key revelation works remarkably well, though it may upset purists, and the cool, desaturated palette of the cinematography is highly impressive, even if the Vanger mansion is often in stygian darkness. And a largely English cast of reliable actors (including Steven Berkoff!) provides impeccable support.

How Long O Lord?

But… enough. How much longer will I have to talk about Lisbeth? British crime writers often suggest wryly to me that I must be heartily sick of her and her brisk manner with a vengeful dildo — and isn’t it time, in any case, that I started concentrating once again on writers from my own country? Or America? Or other points of the compass? My answer is usually the same – yes. it may seem like I spend an unconscionable amount of time in Scandicrime land, but statistically I still write and talk far more about British and American writers. But as long as my phone continues to ring with Lisbeth-related questions, I suppose (to misquote Ado Annie in Oklahoma), I’m just a guy who cain’t say no.


Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Barry Forshaw chairs the panel ’50 Different Words For Murder’, examining the art of translation with authors Antonio Hill, Camilla Lackberg, Liza Marklund and Deon Meyer, at the 2012 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at 10am on Sunday 22 July. You can book tickets now on 01423 502 116. Tickets also avilable online here