It’s an authentic phenomenon. As “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the last of three posthumous thrillers by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, goes on sale this week in the United States, his books have already sold 40 million copies worldwide in a mere five years, while the modestly mounted movie version of his first title has already grossed something like $100 million, with talk of remaking these Swedish productions in Hollywood versions. There is simply no precedent for figures of that magnitude, especially in the mystery-thriller category, where authors become brand names only after they have patiently added many titles to their bodies of work.
It’s possible, of course, that Larsson’s own rather dramatic story is helping to fuel the phenomenon. The writer was well-known as a crusading anti-fascist journalist and as a genial, rather careless man whose addiction to cigarettes and junk food might have hastened his premature demise (at age 50, of a heart attack), not long after delivering his three manuscripts to his publisher. The fact that he also left behind a widely reported controversy is also a good story. Larsson died without a will, meaning his fortune in royalties went to his family, a father and brother with whom he was not close, instead of to his helpmate of 30-odd years, whom he never married but whom everyone (except the lawyers) thinks deserves more than a grass widow’s mite of his earnings.
But none of that quite explains the mystery that lies beneath the phenomenon. Which is this: The best features of Larsson’s books are lively, intricately improbable plots. These, however, are set forth in a banal style that demonstrates no more than minimal skills when it comes to most of his characterizations and descriptive writing. It sometimes seems that Larsson’s interest in novelistic detail begins and ends with the contents of a sandwich that one of his characters makes before dashing out on some potentially dangerous errand.
Larsson’s slapdash manner, it must be said, stands in sharp contrast to the context in which his novels have appeared. For this is the great age of what he might call Nordic noir. There is a grand master, Sweden’s Henning Mankell, whose Inspector Kurt Wallander, a depressive provincial detective, has a rich inner life away from his crime scenes, which are invariably exotic — flaming swans, anyone? — and often enough existentially acute.
Then there are the Norwegians — Jo Nesbo, with his far-ranging historical imagination and a political consciousness that easily matches Larsson’s, and Karin Fossum, who treats the criminal doings of simple country folk with irony and empathy. These are real writers, expertly deploying the formal literary techniques that Larsson lacks. However, if they all live to be a hundred, they will never attain audiences like his.
That’s partly because of something I’ve so far left out of this account. Larsson’s nominal protagonist is a good-natured, if hard-driving, journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, who is rather obviously a projection of the author, though without any spikes, verbal or behavioral, to snag the reader’s attention. That’s where “The Girl” of his titles comes in. Lisbeth Salander is a genius-level computer hacker who is also, essentially, a psychopath — rendered almost mute and unable to trust anyone after a lifetime of abuse, both parental and state-sponsored, both vividly physical and cruelly institutional.
Salander quickly demonstrates an ability to give as good as she gets. You really don’t want to be the guardian who sexually tortures her when she takes her revenge. Or, for that matter, her brutish father, a sometime Soviet spy, now running (in “Hornet’s Nest”) a sex-trafficking ring in which, as one might say, “the highest levels of Swedish society” are complicit.
“Hornet’s Nest,” which carries on without pause from its predecessor, finds Salander near death from a bullet wound to her head and awaiting desperate medical measures. Mostly, she remains confined there, but physical passivity does not imply helplessness. Give this kid a smuggled computer and a lot of help from her few allies and you can be sure she will confound her smug, well-connected enemies.
She is marginally more civil and civilized in “Hornet’s Nest,” and, in any case, you don’t sell 40 million books based solely on vividly rendered scenes of pain and degradation. I think Salander represents something new and unique in this genre. She’s a tiny bundle of post-modernist tropes, beginning with her computer skills. I know there are other crime novels featuring similarly gifted people — though I can’t tell from the examples Larsson gives whether her talent is genuine or pure nonsense. But that’s not important; the point is that she has an enviable mastery of a technology that is bound to impress Larsson’s gawking readership.
But that’s only the beginning of her singularity. She does not, for example, use her computer solely for crime-solving. She has also hacked her way into a multimillion-dollar fortune, which she keeps offshore and mainly uses for selfish purposes — like breast enhancement. She dresses badly, refuses to speak when authority figures — psychiatrists, cops — question her about her activities and, despite her tiny size, she is a martial-arts expert and deadly with guns. She’s also bisexual.
Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books’ nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them.
The answer to that question is yes. Salander may be the toughest nut in Sweden, but she is also a victim — of the country’s by-the-book social-welfare system and of simple human cruelty. We like her almost in spite of herself — such a lonely, solipsistic young woman, lashing out at a world she can manipulate but can never fully comprehend.
Or maybe readers are simply caught up in the novels’ hurtling plots. Don’t forget, however, that Larsson spent far more of his career as a crusading left-wing journalist than as a writer of thrillers. His barely disguised political agenda was vitally important to him, since Salander’s condition encapsulates everything he deplored in the dispassionate welfare state that he thought served Sweden’s elite better than its ordinary citizens. She adds a certain weight to his entertainments, which has doubtless encouraged the clueless enthusiasm of his reviews.
On the other hand, this irony keeps straying into one’s mind: In her vengeful, anti-establishment anger and propensity to violence, Lisbeth Salander is — that’s right — a perfect tea party heroine, a minor, accidental avatar of our scary new political climate. One is free to imagine her decent-minded creator shuddering in his grave at this unintended consequence of his venture into sub-literature.
Schickel is the author, most recently, of “Clint: A Retrospective.” His new film, “The Eastwood Factor,” premieres this week on Turner Classic Movies.