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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" (Books)

I'm notoriously difficult to please when it comes to books. I'll read any old shit, but no matter how good or bad the book is I'm never satisfied with the conclusion - I always imagine a different or more extravagant close. Of the hundreds and hundreds of books I've read throughout my life, no matter how much I loved them, I have felt let down by 90% of the endings...

Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy are not only far superior to the "any old shit" I usually read, but all three endings left me satisfied and eager to proceed to the next story. It's just a shame that there was only time for Larsson to complete three great novels before he suffered a massive heart attack which killed him aged just fifty. His plan, apparently, was a saga of ten books.

The existing trilogy kicks off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (not the original Swedish title, but for this purpose, the title I shall use). It centres around a 50 year old murder case that has never been solved, but which still haunts the successful business-empire family of the victim, Harriet Vanger. Through complex and twisting circumstances, the mystery lands in the lap of shamed journalist Mikael Blomkvist and troubled security specialist and secret computer hacker Lisbeth Salander - two of the most interesting and real characters I've ever seen committed to print. 

Spanning the year of the investigation, the book delves into a dark and crooked family with more secrets than even Salander herself, maybe. And it's the characters and the sheer quality of writing that makes this such a wonderfully rich and wholesome affair. It has sex, death, family, morals and mystery - but, most importantly, something relevant to say about all of those. This is more than just a fantastic crime novel. It is a piece of social commentary that forces its reader into dark, dank recesses until it has finished speaking then allows them to reflect... It's not a pleasant story either, dealing as it does with sex crimes against women and children and the lengths some people will go to keep the family name flying high. If you're easily upset or sensitive to such themes, or if you struggle to get your head around foreign place names (these books are set in Sweden, obviously) then try Dan Brown.

The second instalment picks up almost a year after the events of the first novel and to talk too much about plot would spoil the story. I think it's fair to say, though, that Salander is once more the focus of The Girl Who Played With Fire and that this volume deals once more with difficult and sensitive subject matter. This time European Sex Trafficking and the country's (for which read society's) ignorance of one of the most abhorrent yet lucrative criminal businesses.

Once again, the characterisation and writing style make this book completely unputdownable - Larsson is a talent that was lost before it was discovered and it is a real shame that we won't get any more from him. The story this time around is bigger and bolder than that of the first book, but no less believable. On the contrary; this story seems to have jumped from the middle pages of any one of many European papers. It shines a light on a mucky underworld where the "organised crime" is less organised than we currently think - and the personal aspects of the story go lengths to explaining one of the most enigmatic characters in modern literature in Lisbeth Salander. She's the ultimate love/hate figure - her actions are inexcusable on the surface but accepted by the reader as entirely correct on reflection. I have never felt more sympathetic towards a character ever before. If she was real I'd love to know her, but be frightened of doing so at the same time.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest is a direct sequel to the second story, picking up literally minutes after the last book ends. I dare not give even the slightest summary since even reading the blurb on the book jacket to this one spoiled the ending of the second book for me. You have been warned. But I can say this. The Millennium Trilogy is not only rare in as much as it keeps you interested and satisfied - with plot and character - until the very last pages of all three books, but gets steadily more exciting and interesting and downright thrilling with each book you read. 

Usually the last book of a trilogy or series is either an OTT "uber-conclusion" to the whole saga, where either everyone dies or they all live happily ever after, or a weak and disappointing anti-climax that leaves room for the author to come back to the characters when the bills start piling up. This series, although it could have gone on for longer - there are enough characters and plot through-lines through all three books for there to be ten different, and equally enjoyable, spin-off series - ties itself up nicely while still leaving you with the feeling that these characters are going about their lives long after you've closed the covers. I literally could not read the last two chapters of the third book for a whole day because I didn't want the stories to end. But end they did. And I smiled. Bitter-sweet, but ultimately satisfying to an extent I did not expect. If you've not read these books, please do so. You won't be disappointed.

Larsson, too, is no Dan Brown. There's very little fabrication in the background research here (I've checked) and every step of the characters' adventures feel as real as popping to the shops for some milk (which they do a lot, surprisingly, through all three stories - I never knew the Swedes drank so much coffee!!). There are Swedish movie adaptations of the three books, too, which are great - but nowhere near as detailed, complex or satisfying as chomping through all 500+ pages of each of the books in a handful of sittings. I got these books for Christmas and finished all three within two weeks. I literally could not put them down. I didn't want them to end. I don't think crime fiction will ever be as enjoyable and gut-wrenchingly unpleasant as this. Fantastic stuff... Massively recommended! It's terrible that we'll never get more. Unless, that is, the unfinished Fourth Manuscript (and the rumoured Fifth and Sixth) of Larsson's planned ten books get posthumously completed by another and published... I'm not holding my breath.

Karl Stig-Erland Larsson
1954 - 2004