Like most readers, I don’t always get to read series novels in the order they were written. Sometimes I happen upon a new (to me) author who is actually on his third or fourth book. Then, if he/she is good, I want to acquire and read the entire back catalogue, and as soon as possible while the current book is fresh in my mind. The problem, of course, with starting somewhere in the middle of the writer’s oeuvre is that often oblique references are made regarding events that took place earlier in the series, leaving the reader trying to make connections.
Such is the case with Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium Trilogy I started in the middle, with The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was Mystery of the Month in the BookPage Whodunit column that I wrote for August 2009:
In a month filled with extraordinarily good mysteries, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire stands apart from the crowd, a hip post-modern tale of a crusading journalist and an inordinately talented computer hacker caught up together in the aftermath of a lurid murder. Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman who can play a computer the way Tommy Emmanuel can play an acoustic guitar, has used her talents, quite illegally and untraceably, to make herself a wealthy woman. It should almost be the happily-ever-after end of the story, except that her fingerprints have been found on a gun used to kill a pair of researchers on the eve of their publication of an expose on sex slavery in Scandinavia.
Respected journalist Michael Blomqvist doesn’t think Salander had anything to do with it. He had a relationship with her some time back, and he knows all too well what she is capable of—or more importantly, what she is not capable of. Blomqvist’s relationship with Salander ended badly, and she doesn’t trust him any further than she can spit, but with or without her help, Blomqvist intends to clear her name, and perhaps in the process figure out just what went wrong between the two of them. Blomqvist’s only ally is an elderly hospitalized man of limited communication capacity, Salander’s onetime advocate. Together, the men launch a investigation parallel to the official one, an investigation without the foregone conclusions that seem to characterize the police work in the case.
Salander is an edgy character, more than a little reminiscent of Robert Eversz’ punk photographer/detective Nina Zero; Blomqvist, for his part, is an urbane mix of relentless researcher and firebrand reformer, always stirred, never shaken. The Girl Who Played With Fire is their second outing together; their first, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, should be on your “do not miss” short list as well.
I grabbed a copy of the first book in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, within days of finishing The Girl Who Played With Fire, shelling out an obscene amount of money for the hard cover version (no paperback was available) at a Tokyo bookstore (English language hard cover books run double to triple US cover prices in Japan; aarrgh!). I plowed through it inordinately quickly, frequently referring to the second book for clarification of some obscure (to me) point in the first book. And then I waited for Larsson to write the third episode, what would turn out to be the final volume of the series. For what I did not know at the time, was that Larsson was no longer writing; in fact, he had died five years earlier, shortly after submitting the three completed manuscripts to a Swedish publisher. He would never see the worldwide phenomenon his books would become (27 million books in print thus far, and counting…).
Larsson’s own story is, if anything, even stranger than his fiction: he was a crusading liberal journalist, not unlike his Trilogy protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist. He was a noted political activist, and founder of the Swedish Expo Foundation, established to counteract the growth of white-power culture among young people. No stranger to death threats, Larsson declined to marry his long-time partner, Eva Gabrielsson, because Swedish law required that the addresses of marriage applicants be posted publicly, and this would have posed an unacceptable security risk. Even in death, Larsson remains embroiled in controversy: his original will, which left his estate to the Communist Workers League, was declared invalid, a result of the fact that it had not been properly witnessed. Thus, his entire estate, including future royalties from his books, went to his father and brother, with whom he reportedly had limited contact. Larsson’s partner has petitioned to gain control of his work, in order that it might be presented in the way the author would have wanted. Among Larsson’s effects were an unfinished manuscript of what would have been the fourth novel of the series, as well as synopses of the fifth and sixth.
A note: the final Larsson book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, will go on sale in the US in July, 2010. Not to give too much away here, but it will not be the BookPage Mystery of the Month. The reason for this is that it will be featured in a stand-alone review, rather longer and more in-depth than usual; it is well deserved.
Here’s how it looks in different editions around the world: