The main reason I dislike many thrillers is that the number of three-dimensional characters in them rarely exceeds one. This character is usually the protagonist: the detective solving the crime, the special agent recruited by the CIA to stop the Soviets’ latest attempt at world domination, the victim seeking justice. Everybody else is a cardboard cutout who exists in the story only to nudge the plot along. This one is the protagonist’s sounding board; that one lets slip a critical piece of information during a cocktail party or an interrogation. We never learn much, if anything, about these characters’ personalities, nor are we supposed to. All we need to know is what they know.
Which is what makes Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—so called because Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist at the center of these novels, runs a magazine called Millennium—a pleasant surprise, up to a point. (I read the novels because I love Sweden and Swedish culture.) The books have major problems, not least of which is the wooden writing. There’s lots of nodding and staring and wondering and head shaking—stage direction. And do we really need to know how many minutes everything took, or the amount of RAM in everybody’s laptop? After a while, these details become funny rather than annoying. They’re like charming old relatives who repeat stories at the dinner table, but always with the verve of a first telling.
Larsson did one thing well, however: He created, albeit with a heavy hand, some of the more memorable characters in recent crime fiction. Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the trilogy, is an original: a bisexual computer hacker with ink-black hair and multiple tattoos and piercings, and the owner of more pieces of computer hardware than most high-tech startups. Blomkvist is more of an archetype, but Larsson, who was a journalist before his death in 2004, renders Blomkvist’s adventures, from investigating the disappearance of a Swedish industrialist’s great-niece in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to helping Salander avoid arrest for murder in The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, in vivid detail.
Many secondary characters are equally compelling. Erika Berger, the editor-in-chief of Millennium, is a conflicted career woman, unsure whether to abandon the magazine for a high-profile post at Svenska Morgon-Posten, Sweden’s major daily newspaper. Alexander Zalachenko is a Russian agent who ran a sex trafficking ring in Sweden and whom Salander tries to kill for reasons that, if revealed here, would spoil the fun. Monica Figuerola, an associate at Säpo, Sweden’s security police, is a tall, muscle-bound exercise freak who helps Blomkvist investigate the secret division of Säpo that not only knew about the sex trafficking operation but also falsified information about Salander, whom the state declared incompetent when, at age twelve, Salander tried to kill her father for abusing her mother.
To create so many complex characters, and to blend their disparate stories into a tightly plotted and engaging story, is no small accomplishment. Larsson performed the feat well. The narrative is often unbearably tense, which is precisely what a thriller should be. It’s hard not to admire an author’s ability to weave many disparate plot threads into a coherent whole.
And yet Larsson also got so much wrong. Some passages are so far over the top that one can’t help laughing at them. In one scene, a hand suddenly sticks out of the earth of a newly dug grave and frightens a fox. In another, a prosecutor is allowed to browbeat a witness for thirty pages before the defense attorney finally, and feebly, objects. Each book contains about 200 pages of unnecessary backstory, in which you learn just about everything you never needed to know about the characters’ respective pasts. And, of course, the disease that afflicts so many thrillers: Villains who could finish off the hero in one second and with one shot pause to describe how and why they hatched their nefarious plots, thus giving the hero’s partner plenty of time to rush in and save the day.
The books also display a weird sort of feminism. Larsson has Salander get breast implants early in the second novel. Suddenly, a woman who cared little about others’ opinions feels much more self-esteem than she did when her chest was flat. And the main female characters, all of them smart, independent women, eventually end up in Blomkvist’s bed. There’s no rule that says that independent women, in and out of fiction, can’t have sexual relationships with male colleagues. But by giving every major female character a chance at sexual congress with the suave male lead, Larsson forces us to ask if what we’re observing is autobiographical detail, unimaginative plotting, or wishful thinking.
But what’s the point of picking on success? The Larsson novels have sold millions of copies so far and will sell millions more before the phenomenon subsides. No amount of staring and wondering and head shaking is going to change that.