“So let me get this straight, Mr Larsson, you intend to write a trilogy set in contemporary Sweden which will assume a close knowledge of recent Swedish politics. All three novels will be closely interconnected, so that anyone starting, say, with Book Two will have only the haziest idea of what’s going on. And finally, your heroine Lisbeth Salander is going to be a stick-thin bisexual computer genius who’s also borderline autistic… Mr Larsson — may I call you Stieg? — welcome aboard, this train is bound for Bestsellerdom.”
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (translated by Reg Keeland) is the oddest publishing success story in years. For those not already up to ramming speed, a brief recap is in order. Larsson, one of Sweden’s foremost left-wing journalists, wrote the three Millennium novels for his own amusement — although it’s said he jokingly referred to them as his pension. Shortly after delivering them to his publisher in 2004, he dropped dead of a heart attack aged 50.
The first two books have gone on to sell 10 million copies worldwide, thus making Larsson the second best-selling author in the world last year — Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner, was the first. In the UK, the initial publishing run for the hardback of the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, was 110,000 copies. Another 60,000 were printed within days of publication. Praise has rained down on all three books — some of it from unlikely quarters. A Guardian editorial hailed Larsson’s genius and also his understanding of “the brutal non-ethics of global capital.”
But leaving aside the brutal non-ethics of global capital for a moment, there’s a more fundamental question to be asked — namely, are the books any good? And here things get a little more complicated. What’s immediately plain is that Larsson’s Sweden is a long way away from the wholesome delights of its tourist brochures. Like his compatriot, Henning Mankell, Larsson sees Sweden as a dark, often depraved place, where unrepentant fascists hold positions of enormous power and where men are constantly seeking to subjugate, if not humiliate, women.
There may be a degree of exaggeration here, but there’s also a kernel of truth: one of the key plot-strands of the Millennium Trilogy is based on revelations that a secret intelligence agency existed within the Swedish armed forces in the 1970s. As for the misogyny, incidents of violence against women in Sweden rose by 40 per cent in the 1990s.
The premise of Larsson’s first novel — originally called The Men Who Hate Women — gives a deft twist to that most reliable of head-scratchers, the Locked Room Mystery. A colossally rich old man hires crusading left-wing journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to investigate the disappearance of his daughter 40 years earlier. Blomkvist, who works for a left-wing magazine called Millennium — hence the title of the trilogy-is a gleefully glossy self-portrait of Larsson, laying considerable stress on his incorruptibility and his sexual irresistibility.
All the suspects conveniently live on an island off the Swedish coast and Blomkvist has to go and ferret out their secrets. This is done with great ingenuity and surefootedness. So too is Larsson’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, who becomes Blomkvist’s sidekick and lover. He manages to make her stroppy to the point of sociopathy, but also touchingly vulnerable.
The big problem with the book is that the ending doesn’t work. And I don’t just mean falls a bit flat. Rather, it abandons any shred of credibility and tumbles headlong into a pit of ludicrousness. It’s always a disastrous sign in a thriller whenever someone turns out to have a lavishly equipped torture chamber in his basement-and so it proves here with a hitherto colourless character suddenly casting off his sensible suit and revealing himself to be a sneeringly psychotic pervert.
In the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, the focus shifts to Lisbeth Salander as she tries to track down those responsible for the terrible treatment she received in the Swedish care system. While it’s more solidly constructed than its predecessor, it still requires a lot of indulgence from its readers. For all his fluency, Larsson has an alarming weakness for characters who would barely pass muster in a Guy Ritchie movie — the prime offender here being a
seven-foot blond lump who is not only “built like a heavily-armoured robot”, but also suffers from a disease called Congenital Analgesia which makes him immune to pain.
And so to Larsson’s final offering, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This finds Lisbeth Salander stuck in a hospital bed for much of the book accused of a triple murder, while Mikael Blomkvist doggedly campaigns to clear her name. The novel certainly has its moments — but there aren’t that many of them, and in between the flurries of excitement lie huge swathes of exposition that are likely to make any reader possessed of a blue pencil start striking impatiently away.
Why then have the books been so successful? Have they just happened to come along at a time when the world has developed a ravening hunger for all things Swedish? Perhaps, but I suspect there’s another, and in some ways equally unexpected, explanation. While Larsson’s plotting may be dodgy and his villains daft, he has none the less managed to resurrect one of the great staples of 19th-century fiction, the enigmatic heroine, and give her a new lease of life.
Women such as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White and Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes stories held sway over Victorian fiction, shimmering tantalisingly away. For a while it looked as if feminism had made the species extinct. But in the Millennium Trilogy, Larsson has taken the Enigmatic Heroine, tattooed her, sexualised her, equipped her with huge amounts of arcane knowledge and sent her back out — literally booted and spurred — into the world. There, Swedish scumbags may ravage her body and mess with her mind, but they will never, not for an instant, succeed in plumbing her mystery.