No one, and I mean no one – in publishing could have predicted the huge success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. In fact, Larsson’s trilogy goes beyond a "huge success." It even eclipses the Harry Potter books, though that comparison may be a little unfair since Harry was written primarily for a young adult audience (though I know plenty of adults who read the books), and it spawned a plethora of merchandise as well as book sales. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is that rare thing in publishing – a phenomenon.
The first book in the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo certainly doesn’t begin like it’s going to be a page-turning thriller, and though it picks up the pace somewhere around the book’s middle, it never really turns into a page-turner. Larsson first gives us a lengthy family tree filled with (to an American) odd, and sometimes unpronounceable, Scandinavian names. The book then begins slowly, with lots of backstory and government politics. It’s set in Sweden, a country that’s not high on most Americans’ "must visit" lists, and it’s a "book in translation," with that translation sometimes being less than elegant and compelling. (Unfortunately, I find this to be true of most Nordic crime fiction.)
Yet the Millennium Trilogy has sold more then forty-five (yes, 45) million copies worldwide and is still selling (in fact, Knopf Doubleday recently issued a three-volume boxed set, just in time for Christmas gift giving), and it’s projected that by the year’s end, the books will rack up more then fifteen million copies sold in 2010 alone. That’s more copies sold than the recent works of Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer combined, and their books are certainly no slouches when it comes to sales.
The trilogy has even spawned movie versions in Larsson’s native Sweden, and if that weren’t enough, David Fincher has already begun shooting a big-budget version in English with Daniel Craig. (Good. I love Daniel Craig and I don’t like to read subtitles because I want to devote all my attention to the visuals. I can tell you, the Swedish versions contained gorgeous cinematography.)
Today, when marketing a book plays a more important role than ever before, and at a time when an author who hopes for big sales absolutely has to get involved in that marketing, Larsson managed to become the phenomenon of the twenty-first century without attending one book signing or giving one author interview. The poor man died tragically, at the young age of fifty, in 2004, very shortly after presenting his publisher with the full manuscripts for all three books. He never even lived to see his manuscripts in published form.
Now Nordic thrillers and police procedurals aren’t unknown to American book buyers, and some of the authors (Sweden’s Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Norway’s Karin Fossum, and Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, to name a few) have even built up loyal followings, but none of them can even come close to the success Larsson has achieved. So what’s propelling Larsson’s immense popularity? Especially when his books are rather convoluted and complex, and the narrative is sometimes downright messy, rather than lean and taut?
The biggest reason for the popularity of the Millennium Trilogy is the character of Lisbeth Salander. I put off reading the trilogy for a long time precisely because I didn’t think I would like Salander. I’ll admit it: anything "punk" or "Goth" turns me off. And Lisbeth is both "punk" and "Goth" in spades. When I first "met" Lisbeth, I couldn’t believe "my" beloved Pippi Longstocking grew up so wayward and rebellious. Lisbeth wears her hair chopped short, she rides a motorcycle, she dresses in black leather, she has a definite bent towards violence (in her mid-twenties, she still needs a court appointed guardian), and she’s bisexually kinky. And if this weren’t enough, she has multiple piercings and her entire back is covered with – yes, a dragon tattoo. (In the books, she has multiple tattoos and the dragon tattoo isn’t quite so large.) Oh, she’s also a master computer hacker, and this is the only thing I really admired about her character at first glance (she’s not a cracker, she’s a hacker, and if you’re a writer and don’t know the difference, you’d better find out now.) She is, as editor Otto Penzler says, "the most interesting character I’ve read since Hannibal Lecter. To me the series doesn’t exist without her." And, despite the fact that I can’t see myself having lunch, or even a phone conversation, with Lisbeth Salander, I have to agree with Penzler. Salander is one heck of a literary creation. Like her or not, she’s the kind of literary creation every writer dreams of.
Despite the uniqueness of Salander, she isn’t the protagonist of the novels. That role belongs to Mikael Blomkvist, a very radical, left-wing investigative journalist, who resembles the late Stieg Larsson in many ways. (And so does the Swedish actor who plays him in the films, at least physically.) And, although not the books’ protagonist, Salander often, and sometimes, covertly, conspires with Blomkvist to solve...whatever needs solving. Odd as it seems, the collaboration of Salander and Blomkvist works. There’s even a touch of romance.
Now, readers love it when the real life author resembles a character in one of his or her books. Just look how Robert James Waller mined that connection in The Bridges of Madison County. His protagonist wears red suspenders, and Waller always wears red suspenders. The connections between Larsson and Blomkvist run far deeper and readers love exploring them.
And, though it’s sad, Larsson’s untimely death certainly didn’t hurt the sales of his books. In fact, his death lent a darkly romantic Byronic air to the novels, though they are dark enough on their own. Another thing Larsson’s death ensured was the fact that there would only be three books featuring Salander and Blomkvist. Three. Although well written, the charming Precious Ramotswe novels (I buy each one the day it’s released, Precious makes me happy) of Alexander McCall Smith could go on forever, as could the more serious novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lynley, written by Elizabeth George (which I also read). Since Larsson’s books are limited to only three, book buyers feel like they’re getting something special, something akin to a limited edition, without having to pay the hefty limited edition price tag. Even if a reader ends up not liking the books very much, the fact that there will be no more still gives that reader something about the books to cherish.
Some book bloggers, agents, and editors fear a spate of Salander clones. I don’t. At least not published ones. It didn’t happen with Hannibal Lecter and I don’t think it will happen with Salander. Both are one-of-a-kind. A knock-off would seem just like a cheap trick and well, a knock-off. It wouldn’t work. Salander belongs to Larsson, just as Lecter belongs to Thomas Harris.
Americans, I think, on the whole, have often found Nordic crime fiction to be far too gloomy for their taste. With the phenomenal success of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, however, I think Americans are beginning to realize that the heavy snowfalls, the low-lying mists, and the dense pine forests of Sweden, et al. can be just the setting they’re looking for. And that’s a good thing, because if you love Larsson, there’s a lot – and I mean a lot – more Nordic crime fiction for you just waiting to be discovered. But, none of it will feature the character of Lisbeth Salander.