A teenage boy watches three of his friends rape a 15-year-old girl. The boy does not participate in the rape but neither does he do anything to stop it. Later he telephones the victim and begs her to forgive him; she tells him she never will. The girl’s name: Lisbeth. This, according to Kurdo Baksi, happened to Stieg Larsson, and was the event that led to Larsson’s lifelong crusade against violence against women and, possibly more significantly, to the 45-million-selling phenomenon of the Millennium Trilogy. All summer, the books were everywhere. On subways and buses, in rural farmhouses and on park benches, in every departure lounge and onboard every flight, they were a beach read and a city read, in good weather and bad. People, it seemed, just had to know what was happening to Lisbeth Salander.
There are many legends attending Larsson, partly because the facts are so few – or so plain. He was a Swedish journalist and anti-Nazi activist. He founded an organisation, the Swedish Expo Foundation, modelled on Searchlight, for keeping tabs on right-wing extremists. In the evenings, he wrote the Millennium Trilogy. He smoked like a fiend and subsisted, it seems, entirely on junk food. At 50, he died of a heart attack. There were rumours, all denied, that it wasn’t an ordinary bad-habits coronary but the work of the far right. At the time of his death, in 2004, none of the novels had been published. Now they are unstoppable. As their popularity has grown, so have the conspiracy theories. An anonymous poster on the message boards at stieglarsson.com asks the all-important question: ‘What if he is pretending to be dead, and rises again, like Lisbeth from a premature burial?’
The three books that have been published were all completed before Larsson died, a fourth was three-quarters done and there were rough plans for numbers five and six. Apparently, there was going to be a series of ten. Nobody knows what will happen with the fourth book. Larsson made a will in 1977 in which he left all his money to a regional branch of the Communist Workers League; but the will was unwitnessed, which means it’s not valid under Swedish law, so his entire estate has gone to his brother and father. The estate, close to worthless at the time of his death, is now a multi-million-dollar concern. This has led, unsurprisingly, to acrimony. Larsson had been in a 32-year relationship with fellow anti-Nazi campaigner Eva Gabrielsson, but as they never married, she was not entitled to any part of his estate. What she does have, however, is Larsson’s laptop, and on it, some part of the next book in what would no longer be the Millennium Trilogy. An unspecified sum has been offered for it by Larsson’s ‘rightful heirs’ but she will not sell it; the battle for ownership continues in the Swedish courts. Gabrielsson has had a scuffle with Kurdo Baksi, too, calling Stieg Larsson, My Friend ‘pure slander’ and a ‘character assassination’. Despite its title, Gabrielsson says, Baksi and Larsson were not much more than acquaintances, and she dismisses Baksi’s claim that as a journalist Larsson had been known to invent material. She is now writing her own book about Larsson.
Larsson’s legacy isn’t confined to print. Swedish film adaptations of all three books have been increasingly successful at the box office, and naturally Hollywood has been paying attention. Daniel Craig has been signed up for the American remake of the first film, which will be directed by David Fincher. The quest to find Lisbeth Salander took on Scarlett O’Hara proportions; the role has been filled with attendant fanfare by Rooney Mara, who was introduced to the world in Fincher’s last movie, The Social Network. (It will be interesting to see if Hollywood makes Craig look as sallow-cheeked and paunchy as Michael Nyqvist, the lead actor in the Swedish films, or – more unlikely still – if Mara looks as pierced, forbidding and downright scary as the ordinarily very pretty Noomi Rapace does in the originals.) There are other sides to the Larsson industry too. On the Millennium Trilogy Trail package holiday to Stockholm you can see all the sights from the books and meet, in person, either Larsson’s publisher or the scriptwriter of the Swedish movies (a thousand quid if you’re interested). Let’s face it, you’ve probably read Larsson’s books, and if not, it can’t be because you’re unaware of their existence.
The question is why. Why have the adventures of a middle-aged Swedish journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a tattooed cyber-punk hacker, Lisbeth Salander, gripped the collective transnational imagination? The last books to catch fire like this were the Harry Potter series; adults always admitted to reading them with a mixture of shame and defiance, as though they had been caught watching porn. There are no such qualms when it comes to Larsson. The Millennium Trilogy begins with a murder and ends up exposing treason and conspiracy in the top echelons of the Swedish government; the defection of a high-ranking Soviet official is also involved. En route we learn about the Swedish judicial system as it relates to minors and their mental competence, about child-labour laws in Thailand and Vietnam, and a surprising amount about magazine circulation. There are several murders and many more attempted murders; there are motorcycle gangs, neo-Nazis and gang rapes; there is mundane office politics, larceny, a hurricane, a man physiologically impervious to pain, religious fervour, a boxer, a trial, and – that most Scandinavian of tropes (at least in the popular imagination) – a lot of people going to bed with each other as friends.
As a thriller writer, Larsson is reassuringly dependable. He always knows what the plot is, where it’s going and how it’s going to end up. In the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, a murder is committed and Salander, the chief and indeed only suspect, has vanished – which only confirms her guilt in the eyes of the authorities. Larsson spends 200 pages on the police’s strenuous efforts to find proof of her guilt and Blomkvist’s equally strenuous attempts to clear her. We don’t for a moment believe that she’s guilty, but we can’t wait to see how her innocence will be established. Larsson dangles several different storylines in front of us, toying with our faith in Salander and, as long as we continue to believe, daring us to figure out how he’s going to get himself out of the corner he seems to have got himself into. What piece of information has he held back, what novelistic trick is he going to use? The surprise, at the end, is that there never was a trick: all our questions have already been answered, nothing was skated over, no trail was abandoned, and there were after all no false leads.
Most thrillers start with the same basic set-up. The main character is a detective, a man is falsely accused, a journalist is looking for a story. (Or: there is a plot on the French president’s life; a man is found dead on a snowed-in train; a private detective is summoned to the house of a retired general.) One way or another, an event takes place that sets the plot in inexorable motion. Everything seems to proceed in logical steps: one thing leads to another. Yet by the end it’s fate that has determined the outcome. A previously unknown witness steps forward, the killer makes a mistake, the detective trips up and there on the carpet is the piece of evidence he’s been looking for all along. (Or: De Gaulle ducks at the last moment; the only non-murderer on the train happens to be Hercule Poirot; Raymond Chandler himself doesn’t know who committed the murder.) Often the detective solves the case and only then explains to a captive audience how he did it; the reader dials back through the plot and, with the benefit of hindsight, watches it unfold through the detective’s eyes, since we weren’t with him when he worked it out. It’s not like that here. Larsson makes sure that at every step the reader has all the same information as Blomkvist and Salander, and that we’re granted full access to how they think about what they know. Detective and reader work hand in hand.
This isn’t to say that Larsson doesn’t rely on fate or coincidence: he does, shamelessly, but he uses them to set up the mystery, not to solve it. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starts with a chance meeting on a boat. Blomkvist, on a sailing trip with some people he doesn’t particularly like, runs into a man he hasn’t seen for years who conveniently offers him a scoop about a corrupt financier. It turns out not to be true but piques the interest of another financier, who offers Blomkvist information that will bring down the original financier as long as Blomkvist solves a 43-year-old mystery first, which of course he does. This is only the first of many coincidences: if you’re looking for a witness in Stockholm, all you have to do is stop for a coffee – the person you’ve been searching for will probably be sitting at the next table. In fact, everything that happens in the trilogy – literally everything – happens only because two particular officials happened to be on guard duty the night the defector walked in. If these two villains with their particular sexual predilections had not met the third villain with his particular predilections, there would have been no story. The secret the defector possesses would have been the starting point for most thrillers: here, it’s never even addressed.
Blomkvist, the trilogy’s hero, is generally held to be a version of Larsson himself. What else is one to think when a middle-aged crusading journalist writes books about a middle-aged crusading journalist? Blomkvist works for – and is one of the owners of – Millennium, a small magazine devoted to exposing truths that the gatekeepers of Sweden would rather the public didn’t know. He works all the time. He is always locking himself up somewhere – a cabin, his office, someone else’s apartment – and working through the night, on a mission to bring the world to order. He is somewhat overweight, a sworn enemy of the rich and powerful, and the women he meets can’t keep their hands off him. He’s so taken aback when he comes across one who doesn’t want to sleep with him that they have to have a long conversation about it.
His partner in much of this is Erika Berger, Millennium’s publisher. Larsson has been much praised for creating a hard-working successful woman who is neither a harridan nor its opposite, but simply quite nice and quite sexy, which doesn’t often happen in thrillers, however common it may be in real life. It turns out, conveniently, that Berger has an open marriage, and the two heroes go to bed with each other on a regular basis. This has caused Blomkvist’s marriage to break up, but only because of his wife’s petty jealousy; denying two people with such strong sexual chemistry the right to go to bed with each other just because they both happen to be married to other people is, according to Larsson’s liberated consciousness, as provincial as it gets. Happily, Berger’s husband is very understanding about the whole affair, but then he is sometimes gay and she is equally cool with that.
But it isn’t really Blomkvist, much less Berger, who is responsible for the global frenzy. Lisbeth Salander, the ‘girl’ of the English titles, is, according to Larsson, the person Pippi Longstocking would have grown up to be. As an adult, then, Sweden’s most popular child heroine is an androgynous, violent, promiscuous, borderline autistic, moralistic, sociopathic, bisexual near-dwarf and everyone loves her. The story of her past dominates the trilogy’s narrative, especially the second and third books. Something happened to Salander when she was a child that is now referred to only as ALL THE EVIL (always in capital letters). As a result she was declared legally insane and made a ward of court. Now grown up (more or less), she is determined to prove her sanity and secure her release from her legal guardian. This is the motive behind everything she does. A victim over and over again of sexual violence, always graphically described (the first book contains a particularly nasty rape scene), she never fails to have her revenge, equally graphically described, on the perpetrators. She is sexually wild, and in the course of the trilogy she gets in the sack with Blomkvist (naturally), a teenage boy, and a female performance artist who specialises in bondage. These relationships, Larsson makes clear, are forces for good in her life.
Salander is also a dedicated hacker – it’s part of her outsider status. She belongs to an email network of people who live on the social margins and operates under the codename Wasp. She embezzles large sums of money from dodgy offshore accounts and takes over villains’ computers so that she and Blomkvist can keep track of all the conspiracies they have in their sights at any given moment. Salander uses her computer only to reveal information: she doesn’t – though it’s tempting – add anything to the hard drives of those she wishes to destroy; to frame them would be to bring herself down to their level. She simply uncovers the truths they would rather keep hidden. There is never anything murky about her actions: her motives, the books tell us, are pure and the people whose lives she ruins always have it coming to them. They have done wrong to Salander, have vast amounts of child pornography on their computers, and are intent on undermining the legitimate government of Sweden – if one thing, then invariably all three.
The novels’ minor characters, on both sides of the law, are just as clear about what they think and why they act. There is the main villain, the KGB defector and all-round bad egg, Zalachenko. There are his accomplices in crime and his crooked guardians in and around the civil service. There are good and bad cops, good and bad journalists, good and bad industrialists. The straightforwardness of the good v. bad arrangement – there are no mixed motivations, no changes of heart, no moral dilemmas, no moments of indecisiveness – is a large part of the reason the books are so compulsively readable. Nothing stops the action: faced with a problem, the characters weigh it up, make a decision and then make their move. Nobody ever decides against raping Salander if they’ve set their heart on it.
Sex, in one form or another, is everywhere in the books. In Sweden, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published under the title Män som hatar kvinnor (‘Men Who Hate Women’), and interspersed between the chapters are statistics on the number of women subjected to different forms of sexual assault in Sweden every year. In book one, the killer is a sexual predator; in book two, the central crime is the murder of a journalist and graduate student looking into prostitution rings (that’s the murder Salander is framed for, and the policeman most persuaded of her guilt is mostly persuaded of it because Salander is, at that point, a lesbian); in book three, the various villains are revealed to be a rapist, a child pornographer and a pimp – among other things. And it isn’t only the unpleasant stuff the books are obsessed with. The good guys go to bed with each other at the drop of a hat – or at least after they’ve had a frank and honest discussion about whether or not they’re attracted to each other. They like to warn each other that the affair won’t have any kind of future, and then do it anyway.
Most Scandinavian crime fiction is driven by despair. Sweden, or Norway, or Iceland is going to the dogs; the country the (middle-aged, despairing) hero knew as a child is nowhere to be found; crime and apathy reign supreme. The protagonist’s inner life is affected too. Wallander and Co have failed at marriage, quarrelled with all their friends and now drink alone when they should be asleep in bed. It gets dark early in the winter in Scandinavia. The world is murky and unknowable; crimes are solved by accident. Larsson’s books are different. Here the bad guys have abused the system, in much the same way as they abuse women, but the system itself hasn’t crumbled; these are self-contained viruses and society can still be saved. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the last book in the trilogy, Larsson explains in great detail exactly how the Section – the criminal agency at the centre of things – was formed, what its aims were and how it managed to remain a secret from everyone else in the Swedish government, including the prime minister. The implication is that once it has been removed, everything can be set right: the rot hasn’t spread. These are incongruously cheerful novels. Good triumphs, and has a lot of fun along the way.