How explain the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest?
Each of them, weighing in at 700-750 pages each, more than twice as thick as your average thriller or detective novel, has sold millions of copies—in dozens of languages—worldwide, taking off immediately after Larsson's untimely death (I seem to remember suicide though no one mentions that anymore) and their publication in the author's native Sweden.
Swedish film versions, of the first two, with English or French subtitles, have already appeared and Hollywood versions are on their way. And there is even a titanic inheritance battle in the works, as girlfriend and relatives fight over royalties and ownership of a rumored unfinished, fourth novel, presumably stashed away in Larsson's desk or desktop.
[amazon 030726999X full]The key seems to be the “Girl,” namely Lisbeth Salander, the quirky, violent, physically undeveloped world-class computer hacker around whose very peculiar story the three novels revolve. I won't be giving much away if I say that she is the daughter of a particularly nasty retired Soviet spy-assassin and she was locked up, by the Swedish intelligence service, in a lunatic asylum for much of her youth. (The uninitiated may well ask, “Why?” All I can say is: Read the books.)
She is an exemplary liberated woman, to judge by the number of people she dispatches in the course of the 2,000-odd pages (she even manages one or two kills some minutes after taking a bullet in the brain). And she's smart in some other manly arts, too (she can change a lightbulb before you can mutter Jack Robinson). Perhaps these accomplishments rope in female fans; some men, too, maybe (after all, we're not all good with lightbulbs).
Then there's Salander's sometime partner, the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, an accomplished womanizer and, otherwise, as straight as the day is short. Perhaps there is something fetching about this mix.
[amazon 030745455X full] The plots or plot (the books are repetitive in the extreme) are nothing to write home about. Neither is the prose (though maybe in Swedish it reads like Shakespeare). All three volumes are cluttered with trivia and deadwood. "Blomkvist took the tunnelbana to Medborgarplatsen and walked to Ahllhelgonagatan." Or: "She took a deep breath as the lift door opened and walked into the editorial offices of Svenska Morgon-Posten." These are some of the wittier sentences.
Maybe Larsson's popularity somehow stems from his ill-defined anti-establishmentarianism. Salander and Blomkvist (and the other journalists connected to Millenium, the investigative, no-prisoners-taken monthly described in all three books) are constantly sniping at, and occasionally bringing down, corporations and billionaires and corrupt officials. Larsson even seems to be questioning the virtue and success of Sweden itself. The trilogy is a bit subversive, at least for Swedes (though why this appeals to Anglo-Saxons is beyond me).
[amazon 0307454541 full] Maybe the answer lies in the venue and milieu. Perhaps readers have grown bored with humid, lush oriental vistas, where slant-eyed assassins unleash mambas and speak in gibberish. Perhaps, in a world so crowded with "others," Sweden has become the new exotic.
Be that as it may, the Millenium books contain nothing as biting or shopwornly attractive as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, no one as world-weary and witty as Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, no one as clever as Nero Wolf or as hip as Archie Goodwin.
But there's no arguing with success. Ultimately, bookly success is inexplicable. It's all roulette. Good books by the dozens, each week, die on store shelves (if they ever reach them) and bad books are scooped up by the armful, without rhyme or reason. Go tell.