I came late to the game for the first novel of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, I had a copy of the mass market paperback edition of the novel for almost six months before I decided to read it. But then, I quickly devoured it and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, over the course of a week, wanting to do little more than read during that time. When the final novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, came out at the end of May, I tried to savor it a little more, but I still burned through the final 200 pages in an afternoon. I cannot remember a time that I was so obsessed with a series of novels–there were a few weeks back in 1992 where I was reading a Jim Thompson novel a day, but that’s the last I remember.
I also can’t remember a publishing phenomenon geared toward adult readers that so deserved its success based purely on the quality of the work. Certainly not The DaVinci Code, which, while a fast read, forgoes characters and replaces them with information dumping vehicles while also tranforming art appreciation into codebreaking. But the reasons for the success of Larsson’s books may be a bit difficult to pin down. Apparently, their popularity is due primarily to word of mouth. In the most basic explanation, The Millennium Trilogy succeeds because it ties gripping mystery plots with wholly formed, fascinating, yet damaged characters in its two main investigators, investigative reporter and publisher of Millennium magazine Mikael Blomqvist and punk researcher Lisbeth Salander. And while the steam does run out a bit in the middle of the third novel, the finale is an immensely satisfying conclusion that wraps the series up nicely.
On the surface, though, these novels seem like unlikely successes. The first 150 pages or so of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are filled with infomation on Sweden’s political, economic, and legal systems, and by the end of the third novel, the reader has learned quite a bit about twentieth-century Swedish political history. But in the midst of that is a series of mysteries that begins with the 40-year-old disappearance of a teenage girl on an isolated Swedish island and ends with a scandal that wracks the entire Swedish government.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with a deliciously simple mystery: thirty-six years earlier, a teenage girl disappears from the island home of the wealthy Vanger family during a period that no one could get on or off the island due to a severe traffic accident that cut off the only bridge to the mainland. This large-scale locked room mystery haunts family patriarch Henrik Vanger for decades until, coming to the end of his life, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who has recently lost a libel suit against a powerful industrialist. The novel takes its time to tease out the mystery, and like a true reporter, Blomqvist chases down various dead-ends along the way, most of which flesh out the Vanger family’s sordid history. However, the plot is also punctuated by moments of extreme violence, especially the brutal rape that Lisbeth Salander experiences, which also sets up the plots for the next two novels.
The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fit together as if they were one long novel, and it might have been better for the last novel if they were. Hints from the first novel about Lisbeth Salander’s traumatic past are fleshed out here, and we learn that her life has been dramatically affected by a government cover-up that goes to the highest levels of Swedish politics. So, while the first novel fits solidly within the mystery genre, the second and third are closer to espionage novels, especially those of the 1970s, where an intrepid reporter would expose government corruption (think of a less depressing version of The Parallax View).
The investigations in each novel are always very methodical, though important revelations often hinge on Lisbeth getting some crucial information off of someone’s poorly protected home computer. As the political impact of the plots in the later novels grows, more investigators become involved, and by the third novel, there are at least four investigative units tracking down the same information. Because of that, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest becomes a bit repetitive in the middle, and the bad guys tend to remain somewhat dormant while the various investigators are at work. In addition, Blomqvist stays so far ahead of the bad guys in his investigation that his plan moves forward with a sense of inevitability and a lack of dramatic tension. But despite the novel’s predictability, the courtroom finale and subsequent epilogue are still exciting and satisfying, especially considering how we’ve been waiting to see the bad guys get their due for two novels.
The third novel is also dragged down a bit by an extraneous subplot involving Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s publishing partner in Millennium magazine and occasional lover. Berger quits Millennium when she’s offered a job as editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper, and her tenure there is immediately darkened by a stalker whose tactics become exponentially more dangerous. Not only would this plot lift right out of the novel without doing damage to the overall narrative, but it ends in such a predictable and pedestrian way that it becomes disappointing in light of what has come before. It almost seems as if the plot were added to give the novel some dramatic tension while the rest of the novel was moving toward its inevitable conclusion.
The two main characters are most frequently cited as the reasons for these novels’ success. Lisbeth Salander is certainly a unique contemporary detective: a brilliant punk hacker with serious personality issues that may be Asperger’s. Mikael Blomqvist, however, is a bit of a throwback to an old-school style of investigative journalist while also serving as a “Mary Sue”–a fantasy version of Larsson himself. Like Blomqvist, Larsson was an investigative reporter who started his own magazine. However, Blomqvist also gets laid all the time and is virtually irresistible to women, despite the fact that he is middle-aged and slightly out of shape. Women are attracted to him because he’s “uncomplicated,” as we repeatedly hear throughout the novels. While his failure to maintain a serious romantic relationship comes under criticism from his sister and other women in his life, he doesn’t see a real impetus to change. On top of that, he’s so much damn smarter than everyone else, and that, again, draws away from the dramatic tension in the final novel. To Larsson’s credit, though, Blomqvist remains a charming and engaging character who we root for in his efforts to bring down the most corrupt in business and government.
Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story this week on The Millennium Trilogy, explaining the fascinating story behind the novels. Stieg Larsson completed the three novels before the first was even published, and he died tragically before seeing the first’s success. According to Entertainment Weekly, Larsson’s partner of 30 years may have about 250 pages of a fourth novel stored on her laptop, but that may never see the light of day due to legal problems with Larsson’s family. Other reports state that Larsson had plans for a ten-book sequence. Such information made me a bit nervous about the final novel. The first two ended with loose plot threads–or in the case of The Girl Who Played with Fire, a huge cliffhanger–and I worried that the same would be true of the third. However, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does come to a satisfying conclusion that makes future novels unnecessary (the Berger stalker plot in Hornet’s Nest could easily be setting up the fourth novel as well, which would give further justification to its inclusion here).
EW also reports that David Fincher is set to direct the English-language films of the trilogy (Swedish versions have already been made and released), though no casting decisions have been made. Fincher is a good choice, especially if he approaches the first film more like Zodiac than Se7en by focusing in on the methodical, multi-tiered investigation. He’s also going to keep the film set in Sweden, which is going to fit his visual style well. Despite the adage that film adaptations are usually disappointing, I have some high hopes for Fincher’s films.