A couple of weeks ago, my review of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest ran in the New York Times Book Review. In it, I mentioned the “pathological coffee drinking” of Larsson’s characters in the book and its two prequels, especially by the character who serves as Larsson’s swingier alter ego, Mikael Blomkvist. I also floated my semiserious hypothesis that Larsson, who died of a heart attack at age 50, might have done himself in by drinking so much coffee, having “overcaffeinated himself to death.” (I also mentioned that Larsson’s intimates say he smoked a lot and ate mostly junk food, which couldn’t have served his body well.)
Well, my goofy little theory has triggered quite the animated online discussion—what a hackier writer might call a brew-haha—of Scandinavian coffee-drinking habits, my apparent ignorance of them, and Larsson’s untimely expiry. Both the Times’s Paper Cuts blog and the Web site of blogger extraordinaire Matthew Yglesias have offered feedback from readers who note that in both Scandinavian countries and U.S. areas with large Scandinavian-American populations, such as Minnesota, coffee is brewed, served, and sipped at all hours, nothing “pathological” about it. As one reader puts it, “It is clear that Kamp has never spent any time in Sweden or any other Scandinavian country. The coffee drinking in Scandinavian society is a normal social behavior, not the ‘overcaffeinated’ condition Kamp describes.”
First of all, guilty as charged: I have never been to Scandinavia, perhaps the result of an early trauma involving being forced to watch Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage at a too-tender age when it was broadcast on New York’s Channel Thirteen. But I do have awareness of the Scandinavian coffee culture, if not a thorough fluency in it; I first picked up on it years ago when eating at an Ann Sather, the Chicago mini-chain of Swedish diners where coffee is considered a normal beverage to drink with any meal at any hour. (I have a soft spot for Ann Sather, but I’m kind of grossed out by the idea of drinking coffee with a hearty lunch of meatballs and duck with lingonberry glaze.)
All that said, I maintain that Larsson’s coffee fetish transcended even the Scandinavian norm. Blomkvist’s coffee drinking is not the mere social sipping ascribed to all Swedes, but a 24-7 habit with not infrequent dips into the hard stuff: double espresso. There’s also a rather revealing moment in the second book of the Millenium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, when Blomkvist sneaks into the vacant apartment of his comrade in justice, Lisbeth Salander, and finds himself voyeuristically “admir[ing] with awe the espresso machine on its own separate table. She had a Jura Impressa X7 with an attached milk cooler... Blomkvist knew that a Jura was the espresso equivalent of a Rolls Royce—a professional machine for domestic use that cost in the neighborhood of 70,000 kronor. He had an espresso machine that he had bought at John Wall, which had cost around 3,500 kronor—one of the few extravagances he had allowed himself for his own household, and a fraction of the grandeur of Salander’s machine.” Heavens, the psychosexual suggestions of the phrase “attached milk cooler” alone have me fanning myself as I type.
Okay, onto the deleterious effects of Blomkvist’s/Larsson’s coffee drinking. Throughout the three Larsson books, Blomkvist drinks two kinds of beverages: coffee-based ones and alcoholic ones. Caffeine is a diuretic. So is alcohol. In moderate amounts, neither will compromise a person’s health, but, consumed in large amounts, especially in combination, they will cause serious dehydration. And Larsson’s is not a world in which people hydrate themselves.
Indeed, the only real water drinker in his large cast of characters is Blomkvist’s straight-arrow sister, Annika Giannini, a lawyer who represents Salander in Hornet’s Nest. There’s a moment in that book when, inevitably, the sexually omnivorous Salander, lubricated with beer, makes a pass at Giannini when they have a meeting in a bar. The upright attorney politely spurns her client and steers the conversation back towards business, “drinking mostly mineral water.” (The prude!)
As for Blomkvist, his one moment of fluidic correctness comes during his first postcoital moment with Monica Figuerola, his superfit new policewoman love interest. They wrap themselves in sheets and repair to her kitchen for “cold pasta salad with tuna and bacon.” Here, Larsson takes pains to note, “They drank water with their dinner.” This is the Stieg/Mikael version of doing something uncharacteristically romantic in the early stages of a new relationship, the way a newly besotted young lad will gladly endure a Katherine Heigl rom-com to impress his gal.
Well, that sums up my highly dubious literary autopsy of Larsson, whose death I sincerely mourn despite the silliness above.