The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

rooney mara - girl with dragon tattoo

Rooney Mara starred as Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” released in 2011. (Merrick Morton / Associated Press)

I just finished the last of the three novels in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime thriller novels — and it only took me three years to do it!

It’s true.

I read the first novel in the fall of 2014, when Lori and I were vacationing on Orcas Island. I bought “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at a used bookstore in Eastsound and was blown away. Larsson delivered a masterful narrative that was chilling and creepy, and built it around two intriguing characters — an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist and a reclusive genius hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the heavily tattooed girl referenced in the title.

It took me 18 months to get to the next one, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Same characters as in the first book, picking up right where they left off after the murders of two journalists at Blomkvist’s crusading magazine and the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonging to none other than Salander.

It took me another 18 months to get around to the third and final novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Fittingly, I read it during our most recent vacation to Orcas. With a week of free time to burn in mid-September, I vowed to plow through the 563 pages.

“Plow” is hardly what happened. More like “got sucked into and couldn’t put it down.” Just like the first two, Larsson pulled me in fast and deep.

girl who kicked the hornets nestAs with the preceding installment, the third novel resumed where the second broke off, this time with Salander lying in critical condition in a hospital, with a bullet wound to her head, and fighting for her life. If and when she recovers, she’ll be put on trial for the murders of three men she killed in self-defense.

But the authorities don’t know the true circumstances of those deaths and prosecutors are busy preparing a case against her that looks airtight. It’s up to Blomkvist, who is going through personal turmoil and is under surveillance by some bad guys, to help prove Salander’s innocence. To do that, he needs to penetrate the dark world of Swedish intelligence agencies and unravel the connections between the trio of murders involving Salander and other killings that occur along the way.

This is high praise, but let me say each and every book is superb. They average just under 600 pages each. Taken together, they are extraordinary.

***

Who is Stieg Larsson?

I’d call him a genius.

Larsson was an investigative journalist in Sweden who died of a heart attack in 2004. He was only 50 years old and had just delivered the manuscripts for all three novels, intending that they published as a series.

Imagine that. Creating compelling characters, intriguing story lines, dozens of plot twists and harrowing cliffhangers. Stitching everything together in a total of 1,783 pages and doing it all at an incredibly high level of writing.

It’s a staggering accomplishment.

stieg larsson

The prodigiously talented Stieg Larsson. (Photo credit: The Australian)

As of March 2015, the Larsson novels had sold 80 million copies worldwide and 25 million in the U.S. alone since 2005, according to TIME magazine.

Larsson’s journalistic background shows in the muscular sentences, precise wording and descriptive detail found in each novel. The newsroom scenes at Millennium magazine, where Blomqvist works, were totally on the mark. His knowledge of police investigations, courtroom procedures and computer technology was impressive. And he possessed a vivid imagination that drove the intricate master plot.

In addition to being a first-rate journalist and novelist, Larsson was considered a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.

The world lost a great writer when Larsson died. You’d think the series would have ended with his passing 13 years ago, but no. Interestingly, Lisbeth Salander lives on in two more novels — one published in 2015 and the other released just last month —  both written by David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist recruited by Larsson’s publisher.

I did a double take when I saw the newest one displayed at a grocery store. Absorbed as I was in the original trilogy, I hadn’t realized that the series continued with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” (2015) and “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.” (2017).

I’m not sure how I feel about that. It was so satisfying to read the original series, even if it did take three years. I can’t imagine the next two novels being as good, but I could be wrong.

All I know is that each of the Larsson novels was incredibly satisfying despite sometimes gory content. The late author has given us an unforgetable anti-heroine in Lisbeth Salander, a pixie-sized woman with a photographic memory, a fierce will to live, and an indelible dragon tattoo.

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5 thoughts on “The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

  1. They are heavy, worthwhile reads to be sure. I read the first one not realizing it was a part of a trilogy. I was upset when it ended and I learned the author died after turning in the manuscript. It was with great relief I learned the other had been or would be published. I had trouble getting into Spider’s Web (possibly because I had a newborn and it was an audiobook), but I intend to give it another shot. I also did a double take with the release of Eye for an Eye.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nike. I knew there was a second novel, but not a third. Discovering that another write had contributed a fourth and fifth novel to the series was jarring. I know there’s precedent for it, though. When Tony Hillerman, a prolific writer of murder mysteries set on the Navajo reservation, died in 2008, his daughter Anne continued his work. She’s come out with three novels of her own featuring the same characters. I read the first, admittedly skeptical, but I liked it. She didn’t miss a beat.

  2. Glad you did, Walter. And thanks so much for commenting. I’m not rushing to get to the sequels. If you get there before me, let me know how they are.
    Yeah, I was pretty late to the original party, wasn’t I? Fortunately, good books are like good wine. They age well.

    Finally, you might be interested in my take on Charlie LeDuff’s book. Feel free to IM if you don’t want to reply to this thread.
    https://georgerede.wordpress.com/2016/06/23/detroit-a-ruined-city/

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