The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first volume of the Millennium Trilogy, the novels that a journalist called Stieg Larsson delivered to a Swedish publisher only a short time before he died. When Ali Karim rang to tell me about it, saying that he read it over two days and it has left an impression on him, I thought to find out more, not just about the book but also on the author.
These novels have become a phenomenon in Scandinavia and are one by one soaring into the bestseller lists in Europe. Larsson, renowned in Sweden as a campaigning journalist, sent his first novel to Norstedts only after several of his friends who had read them urged him to do so. He arrived with three, each one of them a substantial typescript. He died of a massive heart attack before the first one was published.
Larsson was a political journalist and graphics specialist for 20 years at a Swedish news agency and he worked tirelessly, long hours into every night, for an organisation called Expo, fighting fascism and racism in Sweden and Europe. He lectured at inter-government seminars in Brussels, he contributed over many years to the campaigning British magazine Searchlight. He answered every call from victims of racism and anti-Semitic harassment and violence. He went to schools to help children who were being racially bullied, talked to the headmistress, talked to classes, told the victims that he was available at any time to come back, if need be.
In the 1990s he and his partner of many years were targeted by neo-fascists. They were for a long time forced to live a life of acute anxiety. Their names were published and their address. Another man, similarly targeted, was murdered -- under the noses of a police surveillance team. And yet Larsson never stopped making his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Swedish and international far right available to everyone who needed to learn from it.
It is no wonder that it was an amazement even to his friends that he had had time to write novels -- where was his spare time? But Stieg Larsson himself was a phenomenon. He had seriously contemplated writing crime stories in English, he knew the genre backwards, was in correspondence with some of its best authors. He would have rejoiced that The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second volume of the trilogy, was awarded the "Glass Key", the prize given to the best crime novel published in Scandinavia.
The only fragment of his huge success that the author knew was the deal his publisher made with Heyne in Germany, for a huge advance. He was 50. It gave him, he decided, the opportunity to change his punishing way of life, and also the chance to put money into Expo.
The original title of the first volume of the trilogy was (and in Sweden is) Men Who Hated Women. Larsson fought discrimination on many fronts in his life and the abuse of women he especially loathed. It is at the heart of two of the novels, and it is the inspiration of the heroine of the trilogy, a magnificent fictional creation, Lisbeth Salander. Salander is the driving force of a narrative that is brilliant, gripping, and utterly original. It is appallingly violent without once, it seems to me, being gratuitous. My guess is that many more women than men have bought the books. Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is in her early twenties, delinquent, a ward of court, freelancing for a security company. She is a computer wizard (self-taught), a kick-boxer, fearless, dysfunctional, bisexual, mortally thin and terrifying if roused.
Who has bought them?
2.1 million copies sold in Sweden* (the paperback of Volume III is not yet released). 50,000 copies were subscribed of the audiobook of Volume III a month before the book publication -- a remarkable symptom of the impatience of Swedish readers of the trilogy. 121,200 audiobooks have been sold in total of the three volumes.
Denmark*: 500,000 copies sold. The hardback of Volume III has only just been published in an initial print-run of 110,000 copies which sold out in two days. The publisher, Modtryk, says that only the Bible has sold more copies than Larsson's books in Denmark.
Norway*: 333,600 copies sold so far of Volume I (h/b and pb) and volume II (h/b only to date). Volume III is to be published in November. It was due to be published in March '08 and brought forward to November ‘07 due to pressure from readers and because of the dramatic level of sales of the Swedish edition in Norway.
Germany: 150,000 copies sold so far of Volume I (h/b and pb) and the h/b of Volume II.
France: 207,000 copies have been sold of all three books. Actes Sud now selling approx 3,000 and 4,000 copies of Larsson books every day.
Not forgetting Sonny Mehta of Knopf in the US, who beat off five other publishers for this extraordinary trilogy with a high six figure offer.
* Sweden population 9 million, Denmark 5.5, Norway 4.6.
Over time I have published David Morrell's FIRST BLOOD (which became "Rambo"), Martin Cruz Smith's GORKY PARK and his unforgettable Arkady Renko, Peter Høeg's MISS SMILLA'S FEELING FOR SNOW, and the Gold Dagger-winning crime novels of Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason and Fred Vargas. The sales of the Millennium Trilogy in Sweden far exceed the fabulous successes of these wonderful storytellers and their central characters and in part this has to be due to what is going in the English-speaking world too to become the Lisbeth Salander cult. She is one of two central characters in the trilogy. The other is the journalist Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine Millennium, a crusading publication that surely has echoes from Larsson's own working life. One Swedish publisher told me that he believed that everything in the trilogy, the sex trafficking investigations, the murder investigations, the financial chicanery had a root in fact. Every Swedish publisher I have met in the last months has been -- and this is as interesting as it is unusual in the jealous world that is publishing -- unstinting in their praise for the novels. Every one of them has read them or listened to the tapes. There is perhaps no more reliable recommendation.
The Swedish film production company Yellowbird, will be producing the film version of the Millennium Trilogy. Shooting will begin in March 2008 and they hope to finish by December 2008, with the aim of having them ready for release in all Scandinavian countries in the beginning of 2009. They will then run on Swedish television by Nov/Dec 2009. The DVD version will have multiple language sub-titles (mainly Scandinavian languages and possibly another featuring English sub-titles). The main cast features Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist. At this time of writing here is also interest from different producers in France and the US for the English production rights, but these have not been sold yet.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Published: 10th January 2008 Price: £14.99 HB
MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus Books)
Read Ali Karim’s book review