Her name is Lisbeth Salander. And she is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.
Salander is the titular heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy that has set the publishing world on fire. Since the posthumous publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(Knopf, 480 pages, 2008) in Sweden in 2005 the trilogy has sold almost 30 million copies in 40 countries.
She is a hero for the new millennium. A tattooed motorcycle-riding Taser-toting bisexual tech savvy computer hacker with the social skills of Mark Zuckerberg and the street fighting ability of Jet Li.
The books were adapted into a Swedish television series and later released as feature films internationally. The first film is the highest grossing movie ever made in that country. While the movies only had a limited release in the U.S. (foreign films do not “open wide” here) they are available as free streaming movies on Netflix, helping them reach a wider audience than just fans of the books.
It is almost impossible to escape the publishing phenomenon that is The Millennium Trilogy. If you haven’t read them either you know someone who has (and probably raved about them) or you have seen them prominently displayed at Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart or similar merchants. If you fly, you’ve probably seen someone at the airport or on a flight with one of the titles featuring their distinctive thematic cover art.
Less well known is the author. A Swedish journalist who spent his adult life researching and writing about his country’s Neo-Nazis and sexual violence toward women (like his fictional alter ego Mikael Blomkvist) Larsson tragically died suddenly from a heart attack at age 50, shortly after turning over the three manuscripts to his publisher.
But while Larsson did not live to enjoy the fame and fortune generated by his books, he is now one of the most famous writers on the planet, named USA Today’s Author of the Year in 2010.
Fitting for an author who steeped his crime novels in computer hacking and high tech gadgetry, Larsson is the first author to sell more than one million e-books on Amazon.com.
Not bad for a writer who has been dead more than five years and whose most recent book was first published in 2007. Currently that final installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest(Knopf, 2007, 576 pages) is sitting pretty at number three on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Sellers List. The other two books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, (Knopf, 503 pages, 2009) occupy positions two and three on the Paperback Mass Market Fiction and Trade Fiction lists.
The first book was originally titled Men Who Hate Women in Sweden, but was released in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The second book has the same name in translation as the original Swedish, The Girl Who Played with Fire. In Sweden the third book was called The Air Castle That Was Blown Up. The movies have been released in America with the names of the English translations.
An American film adaptation of the first book is in production now, with James Bond actor Daniel Craig playing Blomkvist and relative unknown Rooney Mara as Salander.
Larsson was a working journalist who was known in Sweden for his tireless efforts to document and shine a spotlight on the country’s Neo-Nazi movement and other violent racist groups. His political convictions, as well as his journalistic experiences, led him to found the Swedish Expo Foundation, (similar to the American Southern Poverty Law Center) established to "counteract the growth of the extreme right and the white power-culture in schools and among young people." He also became the editor of the foundation's magazine, Expo, in 1995.
Sexual violence toward women was another issue he focused on, which is also a major theme of the stories. Lisbeth Salander’s one women rollicking rampage of revenge is assisted by Millennium journalist Blomkvist, who shares many of Larsson’s traits, including a diet consisting mainly of coffee, cigarettes and pizza.
While there has never really been anything like Salander in English novels or movies, her relationship with Blomkvist is in some ways reminiscent of Mrs. Peele and Steed in The Avengers British television series from the Sixties. Salander is astonishingly competent with technology, fiercely independent, sexually adventurous and aggressive, financially independent, socially aloof but sometimes willing to help and take help from her male counterpart, much like Mrs. Peele.
Women want to be her. Men want to be with her. Well, they probably mostly want to see her kick ass and get naked enough that they can check out that awesome tattoo that takes up most of her back in the films (it’s actually a smaller shoulder tattoo in the books). And more than a few females want to check out that rockin’ bod and tattoo also.
But Larsson was as mild mannered as his fictional alter ego. He abhorred violence, and claimed that part of the inspiration for Salander was witnessing a gang rape of a young girl name Lisbeth when he was a teen. He never forgave himself for not saving her, and that guilt led to the creation of a fictional pint-sized (“five feet tall and thin as a stick”) heroine who endures horrific sexual abuse but emerges not as a victim but as a revenger capable of “an orgy of violence.”
Salander also was inspired by his beloved niece Theresa, who sports tattoos, battled some emotional issues and is a whiz with computers. Larsson also considers his creation a grown up version of Pippi Longstocking, the Swedish literary icon who is another waif with an indomitable will.
Larsson wrote the Millennium trilogy at night, never quitting his day job at Expo. He found it entertaining to pen a series of stories influenced by American mystery authors like SaraParetsky and also Swedish police procedurals which emerged in the Sixties and became known for their almost glacial pacing and realistic descriptions of detailed and painstaking police work.
The Millennium Trilogy was intended to be popular fiction, Larsson only half-joking to friends that it would be his retirement fund. He hoped for the stories to be a ten book series, much like the series of books written by Swedish authors Maj Sjowalland Per Wahloo known as the Martin Beck mysteries or The Story of a Crime. When he died he left an unfinished manuscript for a fourth Salander/Blomkvist adventure on a laptop that is in the possession of his long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson.
Unfortunately they never married, so Gabrielsson did not receive any of the income generated from the books’ astronomical sales and film rights. According to Swedish law all the loot went to a father and brother that he was not close to.
The pair had never married because Swedish law would have required the publication of their address. Larsson was the subject of several death threats from his journalism investigating hate groups. However, Gabrielsson’s ownership of the unfinished story (Larsson had written about 300 pages, the beginning and ending, and made notes for the middle) gives her some leverage in negotiating with Larsson’s family.
Whether the final story will ever be published is anyone’s guess.
Gabrielsson claims that they wrote and plotted the stories together, although the books are credited solely to Larsson. Many female fans believe that there must have been a significant collaboration to create such a fully realized “shero”. If true, the fourth book may indeed be published.
Larsson was a serious science fiction fan and edited several fanzines in his youth. He even wrote some SF stories that have recently emerged, causing a furor comparable to what might be seen if unreleased Beatles songs suddenly appeared.
One of the keys to the series’ ability to fascinate readers is that Larsson manages to tell gripping stories while slowly allowing the reader to piece together the backstory of Salander’s horrific childhood. Each book has a thrilling page turning main plot, but what emerges is the epic tale of Salander’s survival and triumph over several very nasty foes.
A wise therapist will tell you that we become angry when we feel an injustice has occurred. The crimes committed against Salander provoke a sustained anger and thirst for justice and retribution on the part of readers and moviegoers.
Larsson was a master storyteller and he plotted the three novels intricately. Seeds that are planted in the first novel pay off big time in the second and third. When the reader finishes the final book or a viewer sees the conclusion of the third film, there is a profound and satisfying sense of completeness and justice. These books and movies connect deeply and create an astonishing sense of catharsis.
Also, Larsson makes investigative journalism seem vibrant, exciting and important, taking to task in his fiction his real life colleagues who he felt neglected difficult or unpopular issues.
Like Woodward and Bernstein, who cracked the many layered cancer of Watergate in the mid-Seventies and brought down a President, he makes investigative journalism seem cool and will undoubtedly inspire some young readers to become New Millennium journalists for the new media.
Fair warning for readers who have not yet read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and there are still a few dozen, perhaps): the book moves at a sometimes frustrating snail’s pace in the beginning. The first two hundred pages are very slow going. But when the story finally picks up speed, it’s a hell of a ride.
There is something infinitely sad that we may never enjoy more of the adventures of this fascinating heroine. Salander is one of the most interesting and complex characters to appear in popular fiction.
Still, it would have been much sadder had Larsson died without finishing The Millennium Trilogy and handing it off to his publisher. Creatively and financially speaking, he posthumously hit the lottery with his series. Readers around the globe will be grateful about that for years to come.