Stieg Larsson was not perfect. His crime thrillers are packed with enough coincidences to make Dickens blush. His fight sequences read as though they’ve been transcribed from a videogame. He name-checks products, particularly computers, with such regularity that you might wonder if he was getting kickbacks. And, in the parlance of his day job, the Swedish journalist turned novelist dumped his notebook—that is, he invariably told the reader more than necessary and then, lest anyone miss the point, often went over the same territory again several pages later. And yet, somehow none of that matters much, when weighed against the genuine pleasure packed inside the three novels he completed before his death of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50. Larsson was one of those rare writers who could keep you up until 3 a.m. and then make you want to rush home the next night to do it again. Given that there are more than 27 million copies of his books in print, it’s worth speculating on how he did it.
Anyone who has read the first two Larsson novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, knows that he was creating a series of books that together composed one long narrative. But while each volume could stand on its own, something like the seasons of Prime Suspect or The Wire, Larsson ruthlessly tantalized his readers with a cliffhanger ending to the second book: Lisbeth Salander, Larsson’s tough little computer hacker with a photographic memory, had been shot three times, including once in the head, and barely survived being buried alive. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and final volume (Larsson was at work on a fourth when he died and had outlined two more), opens with Salander in custody, first in the hospital and then in jail, and shadowy figures connected to the Swedish secret police are still plotting her downfall. The fun here is watching how high Larsson sets the bar for his heroine—she’s physically weak, and her only weapons are a handheld computer and a cell phone. Luckily, she’s got service. Catch up on your sleep before you tackle this one.
Larsson is something like John Grisham—more amateur than professional in the way he laboriously constructs a story. But both men were born knowing how to plunge average Joes and Janes into plots fueled by paranoia and conspiracy. And Larsson held an extra ace: the creation of Salander, an asocial polymath who can handle herself in a fight and do anything with a computer (and solve Fermat’s Last Theorem in her spare time). If Larsson had genius, it lay in knowing how to embed this near-superhero—a goth-girl Sherlock Holmes with piercings—into the more normal workings of a police-procedural crime story. All three novels trudge along until she appears, and then an almost magical transformation occurs. You get the literary equivalent of a caffeine rush while you wait to see how—not if but how—she will extricate herself from the latest jam. Delightfully perverse, she is Pippi Longstocking all grown up and cranky (the series’ other protagonist, an investigative journalist, is nicknamed Kalle Blomkvist, after another Astrid Lindgren character). Larsson may have died too early, but Lisbeth Salander will keep his name alive for years.