Stieg Larsson's Trilogy: Another Black Swan in Literature!

Everyone's heard of that phenomenal blockbuster that's come out of Sweden: the Millenium Trilogy. The author is a Swedish newspaperman, Stieg Larsson, who by the way, is unfortunately dead - he died in 2004 at age 50 from a massive heart attack. We, in Europe, for once have been luckier than Americans in getting to know his work. The three volumes - crime thrillers featuring an improbable couple of mystery-solvers, a middle-aged investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his young bisexual hacker friend, Lisbeth Salander who's a mathematical genius and covered with tattoos - have been translated in all major European languages,since they were first published in 2005 (I read it in Italian). They became a hit in Europe well before arriving in America, a very rare event. Usually, it's the other way round, as notoriously exemplified by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Now the third volume - The Girl who Kicked the Hornest's Nest - is coming out this week in the US and I thought you might be interested in hearing my...mmmm... opinion! And what a book this is! Once again and like its two predecessors, it's well over 800 pages long and weighs a ton. Anyone who's got an ebook reader would be well advised to load up the electronic version on his/her machine and thus avoid getting muscle cramps.

First, I'd like to point to the amazing odds that faced such a literary product. You'd think that anything longer than 2500 pages (even if divided in three volumes) would be next to impossible to sell. You'd have to be Dostoievsky in person to manage it! Yet Stieg Larsson's masterpiece has been an instant success and has sold millions of volumes all around the globe. His work is the next Harry Potter wonder - with adults this time. Which goes to show that publishers never know from where the next literary juggernaut might come from. In fact, when Larsson proposed his manuscript to publishers in Sweden, convinced that it would make him a millionaire and ensure him a happy retirement, he was the only one who thought so. By the way, that is a very common malady among would-be writers: they're all convinced they're the Next Big Writer... Larsson was turned down by everyone and eventually the only publisher willing to take the risk was a small one. That, of course, is a repeat of what happened with the Harry Potter series, and in the past, it's happened to a great many other big sellers, including Gone with the Wind (it was rejected 20 times!)

In short, books such as these are perfect "black swans", to use Nissim Taleb's famous image: they are totally improbable events - yet they do happen! It does make one wonder what the ingredients for (literary) success are. In any case, they are apparently not what literary agents, editors and publishers are looking for! Left to their own devices, publishers appear to prefer publishing "sure bets", i.e. authors that have already published successfully, like Stephen King, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, Agatha Christie etc. In this "business model" new writers haven't got a ghost of a chance.

Thank God there are black swans around that remind everybody that it is wise to look beyond the "true and tried". Actually, what publishers forget is that people love anything that breaks the monotony - anything new, and that means, by definition, anything "untried".

The Millenium Trilogy is definitely a break with the accepted genre (mystery, spy stories etc). It's not another Le Carré or anything else you've ever read. Why? First, Stieg Larsson doesn't look down on his reader or takes him for an idiot. He expects him to plod through all kinds of background material, just as any good investigative journalist would. The famous principle of the new American writing school "Show, Don't Tell" is largely ignored - and that in itself is refreshing. Oh,to be sure, there are many suspenseful passages of "show", with plenty of violence, murder, sexual abuse and the like. And they're welcome and fun to read. But in between, you get a lot of thoughtful "tell" and complex disquisitions into highly interesting issues, such as how money is a source of corruption (in the first volume), how violence is linked to sexual abuse (the second volume) and how spies, while necessary for national security, are nevertheless a threat to democracy (the third volume). And a thread running through all three volumes is a definite and refreshing feminist stance. It is nice to read stuff that is unabashedly open-minded and liberal!

So, in spite of the excessive length of these volumes, you never get the impression you're indulging in cheap suspense and wasting your time. His books invite readers to think. Even when the story slows down to snail pace, one keeps reading to find out how the whole thing will get resolved. Because the protagonists - always highly likeable - get themselves entangled in seemingly hopeless situations. The fun is guaranteed.

These elements - dealing with interesting issues, proposing likeable characters in addition to ghastly villains, making the plot so complex that one wonders how it will all end, - are the key to the success of the Millenium Trilogy.

Is it well written? I don't know, unfortunately I can't read Swedish. Because I believe that to judge style, you have to read it in the original. In Sweden, people say it is well written. Indeed, many doubt that Stieg Larsson actually wrote it. They point to his companion,Eva Gabrielsson, an architect who is reputed to be a good writer while he, Larsson, was a graphic designer and reportedly couldn't write. Who knows...A sequel to the three volumes may yet come from his companion who has kept his personal computer which contains, it is said (see article in IHT of 22 May 2010), three quarters of the next volume, plus fragments of more volumes (Larsson had apparently planned on writing ten volumes). Whether we'll ever get to read anymore depends on the outcome of a legal battle between Ms. Gabrielsson and Larsson's father and brother who so far have inherited all rights to his work - a quirky effect of Swedish law that does not recognize any rights to an unmarried companion.

Is there something I don't like about the Millenium Trilogy? Yes, the length! I wish a good editor had taken a red pencil to it. Much of the "tell" parts could be cut back without affecting the book and leaving intact all the issues raised. I'm convinced that instead of nearly 900 pages a volume, it could easily be reduced to 300. And in the process gain in literary value. Because, let's face it, in this form, it's not exactly literature - too often it reads like straightforward investigative journalism.

This said, I highly recommend it. Because it is after all something new in crime thrillers: one could call it "romanticized investigative journalism". Quite a mouthful to describe, but well worth the effort to read...

Do let me know what you think - after you've read it, of course, three or six months from now!