One of the strangest publishing phenomena in recent memory is the extraordinary international success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. A semi-famous left-wing Swedish journalist who died young and relatively uncelebrated, the three mystery novels Larsson wrote before his death, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have sold millions of copies worldwide, gained a dedicated cult of adoring fans, spawned a hugely popular Swedish film series, and set in motion a Hollywood remake directed by celebrated filmmaker David Fincher.
There is really only one reason for the massive success of Larsson’s trilogy: a fascinating, unique, and entirely fictional young woman named Lisbeth Salander. While the books’ Swedish setting, their overtones of political and social criticism, and their main character, the plodding journalist and obvious Larsson alter ego Michael Blomquist, are interesting variations on the conventional mystery, it is Salander who elevates the proceedings into something entirely new in crime fiction.
Women have figured in detective novels before, of course, all the way back to Agatha Christie’s whimsically menacing old spinster Miss Marple, but there has never been anything like Lisbeth Salander. A genius computer hacker with a photographic memory, Salander is also a bisexual, possibly autistic, anti-social misfit who stalks the streets of Stockholm with a punk haircut and a face full of piercings. A victim of longtime physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, Salander is given to fits of barely controlled violence directed against those who have exploited, abused, and wronged her. She is now a role model and hero to women worldwide, mainly because of the brutal and uncompromising revenge she takes on the rapists, murderers, and other assorted criminals she encounters over the course of the Millennium trilogy. She — and her popularity — are also a glorious spanner in the works of what, on the surface, appear to be the very conventional liberal politics of Larsson’s books.
Larsson’s personal political views are not in doubt. He was a longtime member of the Swedish radical left, and his magazine Expo was famous for exposing the dark underbelly of the Swedish right wing. In an early and now invalidated will, he went so far as to leave all his assets to the local communist party. At first glance, the novels seem to follow Larsson’s ideology fairly closely. Blomquist, Larsson’s alter ego, is an aging libertine who carries on a longtime affair with another man’s wife — with her husband’s knowledge — and spends his time bedding numerous women while congratulating himself for not bowing to conventional social expectations. The Expo-like magazine he runs is all but identical to Larsson’s own. The books themselves deal with subjects like rampant violence against women, trafficking in prostitutes, and the crimes, conspiracies, and cover-ups engineered by the collusion between government and big business. Indeed, there are moments when the books seem to stop dead in their tracks so that one of Larsson’s characters can deliver an NPR-style bromide on a subject dear to the liberal heart.