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Millennium trilogy

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First American editionFirst U.S. edition, 2008
By Stieg Larsson
Novels in series ▽ Novels in series △

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2005

The Girl Who Played With Fire, 2006

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, 2007

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women)

First publication
2005, Sweden

Literature form

Crime, thriller

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 165,000 words (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Noir in black and white

Nordic noir had been around before the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels made it a worldwide fad. For at least a decade earlier, great Scandinavian crime writers, like Henning Mankell, had been winning acclaim for their gruesome mysteries investigated by flawed human beings tangling with society's darkest forces.

Those works though were still essentially police procedurals. Stieg Larsson's novels making up what became known as The Millennium Trilogy are bleaker than anything that came before. And they raise the social critique aspects of their stories to a level higher than in previous Scandinavian crime fiction, or the original American noir for that matter.

The books are a callback to the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s in other ways too. Stripped down, just-the-facts writing. Minimal internal musing. Telling the story through blunt conversation in a series of sharp scenes. Flashes of action—swift and brutal.

But Larsson's prose—at least in English translations—is pedestrian, missing the poetic flourishes and cynical humour of American masters of the style like Raymond Chandler.

He jumps around his characters' perspectives in open bestseller fashion rather than staying constrained within any one main character's restricted point of view.

And, of course, his stories are more wincingly vicious. Part of this is a reflection of the times. All entertainment is more violent than it was decades ago.

But it also has to do, perhaps paradoxically, with one of his great themes being the treatment of women and the prejudice against those who are different. The title of the first novel in the trilogy was originally Swedish for  Men Who Hate Women, which pretty well gives away Larsson's intentions.

As horrible as it is to follow the attacks on the brutalized, possibly autistic Lisbeth Salander, it is exhilarating to watch her harness her intelligence to exact equally graphic revenge.

In fact, the first Millennium novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, suffers a letdown after Salander avenges one of the wrongs against her by one of the women-hating men. After this triumph, we're left with the working out of the novel's main mystery by the book's central character Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced left-wing journalist. It's a decent, clever—even intriguing—mystery, also entangled with exploitation of women.

Climaxes and cliffhangers

The search for what happened to a young girl who disappeared thirty years ago from a Swedish island ruled by her rich family would have made an acceptable entry in the work of any other of the good and popular crime writers of the day.

But it's the character of the strange little female hacker with the tattoos and punk clothing that galvanizes the novel. Coming back into the story to ally with Blomkvist, she raises it to another level. She practically takes over the second and third novels in the series. No wonder the English-language publishers wanted to change the Swedish titles to focus on "the girl" (who is actually in her twenties).

The first novel builds to multiple peaks, including Salander's revenge, the solving of the main mystery, plus Blomkvist's revenge (again with Salander's help) against the crooked capitalist who had ruined his reputation, and several other crises along the way. In this respect, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is structured more like a serial than one overarching story. Larsson is fond of sections ending on breathless revelations to push readers into the next set of adventures.

And this continues into the next two novels. All three actually tell one long, complex narrative of intertwined conspiracies, with several shorter story arcs grouped into each of the three novels, though the first novel could stand on its own as the most complete tale in itself.

The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, may be many readers' most compulsive read—until they get to the third one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Larsson may not be a great turner of phrases (it's hard to pick out strikingly quotable lines from the books), but the organization of his writing does drive his story forward powerfully.

Both the latter two novels, though, do slow down at various points with long pages of exposition outlining parallel police investigations and a national security subplot involving a Russian defector linked to Salander, before reverting back to the intense dramas of Mikael and Lisbeth. The last entry in the trilogy is particularly excruciating in its slow march to the inevitable resolutions in our heroes' favour.

In the final analysis, this exemplar of modern Nordic noir is as moralistic as its Scandinavian forerunners. But it's the morality of the struggle between established social norms and personal codes of what's right and wrong. As in any great hardboiled crime story, the figures defending society are willing to break the law and bend the usual ethical rules to achieve a greater good, almost as much as the forces of darkness are willing to do the same for their own enrichment.

Future Lisbeth

Stieg Larsson died before his three novels were published and before various movie or television adaptations were made. The trilogy has been extended in a popular series—to lesser effect and acclaim—by other authors. But whether the girl with the dragon tattoo will live on in the public imagination very far into the future is a question hard to answer.

High-brow critics can dismiss the novels as overly sensational, and thin on the literary features of nuanced characterizations, allusive language and introspective themes.

But the works have struck a chord with the tenor of our times in the early 2000s and who's to know whether they will continue to reverberate in the tumultuous times to come?

— Eric


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