Already, a nimbus of legend surrounds the story: In late 2004, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson delivered to his publisher three finished manuscripts -- the opening salvos in a rumored 10-part suspense narrative. Like a latter-day Sjöwall-Wahlöö, the husband-and-wife detective novelists whose Martin Beck decology (1965-75) engaged Olof Palme-era political unrest, Larsson sought to explore and explode the moral deficits, irresponsible government and extremist movements that characterize postmillennial Europe. And, he admitted, he wanted to ensure a plush retirement.
Not long after, the author suffered a fatal coronary. His death, which truncated Larsson's stewardship of the liberal investigative journal Expo, sparked a susurrus rustle of conspiracy theories; it also sounded a grace note amid the chorus of praise heralding "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," his posthumous debut. In the years since, Larsson's legacy has evolved rapidly, ineluctably, ubiquitously: After selling a combined 3 million copies in Sweden (population: 9 million), the so-called Millennium novels stormed foreign shores, collecting rhapsodic notices and swamping international bestseller charts -- even, in the case of "Dragon Tattoo," clocking more than six months on U.S. bestseller lists.
This last statistic is especially notable. Scandinavian crime writers in translation are legion: Karin Fossum, whose spare, mournful Inspector Sejer novels evoke the wintry anomie of southern Norway; Arnaldur Indridason, the bleak bard of Reykjavik; Henning Mankell, creator of the moody Kurt Wallander. Yet none have gained significant popular traction in America.
So how did "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a novel variously hailed as artful, urgent and conscientious, stake a claim on the bestseller stamping grounds of James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer, terrain traditionally hostile to art, urgency and conscience?
The answer is simple: Scalp those umlauted ö's, prize the double-s' apart, pave the varicose waterways of Larsson's Stockholm, and behold -- the Millennium novels are outfitted like urban-American thrillers, thick-skinned and sinewy, kinked with absurd plot twists and steeped in gore. While "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" read like a Nordic "Silence of the Lambs," its dynamic, brawny sequel, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," reanimates the tropes of the political thriller.
The brutal murders of a journalist and an academic, days before the publication of their research on Swedish sex-trafficking, have electrified Stockholm. The ensuing investigation reunites conscientious reporter-sleuth Mikael Blom- kvist and Lisbeth Salander, his dragon-tattooed girl Friday, now independently wealthy. (Or, rather, it threatens to reunite them: The two share only two scenes throughout the entire novel and exchange not a line of dialogue.)
Blomkvist remains efficient but dull, a Volvo among heroes; in Salander, however, Larsson has bottled lightning. Humorless, obsessively private, a tiny, crew-cut punk pixie whose former therapist complains that "she lacks empathy and in many respects can be described as a sociopath," Salander still haunts the Internet under the handle Wasp, hacking security systems and monitoring the lives of her enemies.
When forensic evidence places her at the crime scene and implicates her in a third homicide across town, she takes wing -- and Larsson is canny enough to no-comment on her guilt.
Like spaghetti westerns, les superproductions of Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz, and British chanteuses from Dusty to Duffy, Larsson's work demonstrates how American popular culture has colonized European art. Especially cinema. The author stages action sequences with the zest of a Hollywood filmmaker: A livid typhoon reels a man from the beach "into the sea as if by an invisible hand"; a fugitive pilots a hijacked motorbike (" 'Harley Davidson,' she said. 'Sweet!' ") across the Swedish countryside; a boxer tracks an abducted woman to a warehouse, where he challenges her captor to a brawl. (Yes, he suggests that " 'we find you somebody your own weight class.' ")
Elsewhere, the novel knocks its characters from the Caribbean to the Continent, unfurls a few spry chase sequences and even introduces a lesbian satanic cult. By this point, we are well past Page 300, but as the saying goes, it's never too late for a lesbian satanic cult.
Formally, at least, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" is a muscle car. But a European engine purrs beneath its hood. Sex trafficking interests Larsson as a symbolic evil, representing a vice insidious and entrenched: the exploitation of women in an ostensibly progressive nation. Consider Larsson's female characters: an American heiress whose husband plots her death; Salander's rainy-day lover, Miriam, taunted by a homophobic cop, her home violated in a state-sanctioned raid; an embattled detective contending with sexist colleagues and skeptical superiors; and Salander, who -- abused by her guardian, mistreated by her doctor -- is not simply the victim of men; she is the victim of men entrusted with her care.
Imagine that -- a thriller with moral freight.
Even when Salander vanishes from the book's entr'acte, which swirls without her like water around a drain, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" buzzes with ideas; even amid the carnage of the Grand Guignol finale, it fizzes with fury. And while Reg Keeland's flat translation preserves folds of fat -- one stultifying passage itemizes Salander's every purchase at a local IKEA -- it ably indicts a system that empowers the empowered.
In the novel's concluding sentence, an ambulance is summoned for an injured woman, and so potent is Larsson's outrage, and so persuasive his rhetoric, that we dread who might arrive to tend to her.
Mallory is on the faculty of English language and literature at New College, Oxford University.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times