The hype around Stieg Larsson’s Millennium book trilogy is in full swing with millions of copies sold — and the first movie adaptation a Scandinavian blockbuster. But the author, who died before he got to see any of his books in print, would have been a reluctant celebrity.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the blockbuster movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Photo: SF
With more than ten million copies sold before all the translations are even complete, the Millennium trilogy is a worldwide publishing sensation. Readers have been gripped by the exploits of its heroes, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, described by one reviewer as “the coolest crime-fighting sidekick to come along in many years.”
A modest man
Larsson, who was also a journalist and editor-in-chief of anti-fascist magazine Expo, landed a contract with a major Swedish publishing house but died before a single book had rolled off the presses.
Former colleague and friend Richard Slätt says: “Stieg knew instinctively that the books would be a success, although he never bragged about it. But I’m not sure he understood just how big they would be outside Sweden.”
Stieg Larsson worked daily to prevent fascist tendencies in modern-day society. Photo: David Lagerlöf
Those who knew Larsson make him sound almost like a literary character himself. With large 1980s-style glasses and a worn-out corduroy jacket, he chain-smoked and ingested industrial amounts of black coffee. He never entered the office before lunchtime, but then worked through until three or four in the morning. When he got back to his apartment he would write for another hour or two before going to bed.
Had the soft-spoken and modest author lived to see his success, Slätt does not believe fame and fortune would have changed him. “I think he would have spent a lot of money on Expo and kept on working there. His publisher would’ve had to force him to do interviews on the morning TV sofas.”
Virus from the north
The Millennium trilogy is a particular hit in France, being branded “the virus from the north” by the media for the way the books have spread among the reading public. Marc de Gouvenain is an editor at the books’ French publisher and co-translated the trilogy into French. “I read two and a half of the books and then ran to my editor-in-chief and said ‘I have something really special here, we should buy the rights!’”
The first volume, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor), has sold over a million copies in France alone. Critically-acclaimed, prizewinning books normally sell a fraction of that figure. “This is sales on a totally different scale,” says de Gouvenain.
One of the worldwide publishing sensations of recent years, The Millennium trilogy has so far been especially popular among Scandinavian and French readers. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP
Having translated literature for more than 40 years, de Gouvenain believes one factor behind the books’ success is that unlike many thrillers, there is a basic optimism behind the murders, the corruption and the suffering. “The political message is that if the pillars of justice, the police and the media work correctly, then we are still in a democracy. Larsson is saying that, yes, society has its bad sides, but let’s be optimists.”
A publisher’s dream
The books have been translated into nearly 40 languages and the film rights sold to a growing list of countries. Negotiations are underway for an English-language movie series to follow the Swedish ones already produced. Larsson had originally left the manuscripts with one Swedish publisher, but in a business misjudgment right up there with the record labels that turned down the Beatles, the publisher had not opened the package. The exasperated author took the books back and gave them to Norstedts, one of the main literary publishing houses in Sweden.
Magdalena Hedlund, literary rights director at Norstedts, says it was a publisher’s dream for a writer to show up on the doorstep with three finished books. “It’s unheard of,” she says. “It was the first time that Norstedts has signed a three-book contract with a person who had never written fiction before. We had high expectations, but we didn’t expect this kind of success.”
100 pages in
Larsson died of a massive heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50, shortly after he had signed the contract with Norstedts. He was about 100 pages into a fourth book, and according to friends had a further six in the Millennium series planned in his head. Larsson’s untimely death was devastating for his friends, colleagues and family, but it added to the myth surrounding him and his books. He has joined the roll call of sublime creative talents snuffed out in their prime.
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David Wiles is an English journalist living and working in Sweden. Like most readers of the Millennium trilogy, he devoured the books back to back and was left pining for more.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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