But what make the trilogy so valuable to the cause of journalism are the things it gets right. Over the course of more than 1,750 pages, its author captures a remarkable number of the challenges that doing honest journalism involves, as well as the reasons it matters whether people keep doing it. This is significant, given the profession’s apparent inability to make a compelling case for itself, at least in the eyes of the readers, viewers, and listeners who do not appear to be concerning themselves terribly much with its rapid disappearance. The journalists’ credo can be found in the instructions offered by Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s lover, best friend, and editor, to one of the young writers in her employ: “Your job description as a journalist is to question and scrutinize critically—never to repeat claims uncritically, no matter how highly placed the sources in the bureaucracy. Don’t ever forget that.” This could sound like the kind of pabulum that has entered into the speeches of all the gruff, quietly heroic newspaper editors once concocted by Hollywood, from Humphrey Bogart in Deadline, USA through Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. But in Larsson’s gothic and twisted murder mysteries, the attention to journalistic detail with which readers must identify to make it to the end can only endear them to the men and women sufficiently dedicated to Berger’s lofty mission statement to stick with it.
The trilogy’s plot, while impossibly complicated to describe, much less condense, frequently turns on matters of journalistic propriety of the kind that are rarely discussed outside badly lit newsroom cafeterias and gloomy university seminar rooms. We see Mikael and Erica struggle with love and danger, but also with questions of proper sourcing in a magazine article versus a book, a little magazine versus a powerful (and compromised) newspaper. We see the drudgery of research, of interviewing sources, and building a story one detail at a time; of trying to figure out who’s lying and why, how to publish what one knows without giving away what one doesn’t, and then how to manipulate the numbskullery of television to build the biggest echo chamber possible for one’s work.
Along the way, almost all of the (frustrating) details of the profession are laid bare.
First, media organizations are rarely honest about themselves. When a terrific story by another underpaid freelancer about the manipulation of, yes, global toilet prices and the exploitation of third-world workers threatens the public reputation of a newspaper’s owner as a man of decency and honor, it goes through only because Berger has recently left Millennium to be the newspaper’s editor. The cynicism of the crotchety time-servers she encounters at her new job is also not of the cute, heart-of-gold variety that we typically find in fictional portrayals of the profession. “Today’s task is to write an editorial on the demonstrations,” Berger’s editorial-page editor explains to her. “I could do it in my sleep. If the pinkos want to start a war with Denmark, then I have to explain why they’re wrong. If the pinkos want to avoid a war with Denmark, I have to explain why they’re wrong.”
Larsson, moreover, is particularly astute in his portrayal of the psychological vulnerability that journalists feel when they try to travel independent of the pack. At one point, Blomkvist finds himself wondering if his friend and aide-de-camp, Lisbeth Salander—the tortured, possibly autistic, punkish, tattooed “Girl” genius of the titles—might actually be guilty of the crazy crimes for which he knows she has been framed, simply because that’s what everyone in the media assumes. No one, not even the man who knows best, is immune to the crippling power of the media master narrative.