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The summer of Stieg Larsson Add to ...

The numbers are almost too astronomic to believe. Worldwide sales this week are reported to be in the 35-million-to-40-million range, but it's impossible to be more accurate since the copies sell too fast to count.

Penguin Canada's sales hit one million on Thursday - 1,0002,746 to be exact, for all three titles of the bestselling trilogy, in all formats. Penguin initially ordered 70,000 copies of the final book, but in the first 10 weeks sales hit 195,000 - the highest number for a hardcover in Penguin Canada history.

In the United States, news broke on Wednesday that the author has become the first one to sell more than one million ebooks on Amazon, beating out top sellers Stephenie Meyer ( Twilight) and James Patterson ( Kiss the Girls and other bestsellers).

Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth Salander in the films.



In Europe, analyses of 2009 book sales put the author at No. 1 among fiction writers, ahead of Ms. Meyer and Dan Brown ( The Da Vinci Code).

It takes one's breath away to think that there could ever be a blockbuster like Harry Potter again.

But such are the cold, hard facts about this summer's beach and cottage drug of choice: Theroughly 2,100-page Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, who died soon after delivering the trilogy in 2004. Since then, the giant tomes - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - have proliferated like mould throughout the world's bedrooms, airport lounges and public-transit systems. This summer, the presence was amped by the release of the DVD of the movie based on the first book coinciding with the opening of the movie based on the second book and the publication of the third book in hardcover.

In urban settings, you can't get on a bus without negotiating the aisles around the monster books (or maxi-pads of e-readers) of 1, 2 or 3. The only conversation that lights up a room is when one trots out the two words "Stieg Larsson," or for those in the know... "Lisbeth Salander."

Men are becoming girl-with-tattoo widowers, because their wives only want to get cozy with the book at night.

And this is a trilogy that was launched five years ago. No matter what readers' tastes are, highbrow or lowbrow, they are all diving in to the super-salacious mystery riddled with mysterious state "guardians" who viciously exploit the young heroine, a superhacker who bides her time before wreaking revenge. There is even a peculiar Darth Vader-like twist. Despite the passages of endless quotidian detail, there is no end of appetite for the trilogy, two of which sit at first and second place on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list.



The fact that he died during this and the fact that there's some mystery involved with who actually wrote the book, people who hadn't even read the books had heard of this. Megan Boler, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education


"If you see it everywhere, you go, 'Oh wow. Let's see what it is.' This is a phenom," says author and cultural critic Varda Burstyn, based in Peterborough, who is herself onto the third book.

Ms. Burstyn says powerful promotion and compelling substance generate mass appeal on this scale.

"Things don't go viral like that unless there's good marketing," she says, adding that "rabid word of mouth" is part of that process.

Beyond simple characters and "a lot of sex and violence," the hordes have got hooked because the material is an adrenal cocktail.

The aura of mystery surrounding the trilogy is as much a part of the phenomenon as anything.

Like his Millennium protagonist, Stieg Larsson was a crusading investigative journalist.

Mr. Larsson, like his hero Mikael Blomkvist, was a left-wing crusader and investigative journalist who attracted controversy and death threats with his exposés on corruption in Swedish business and politics. After years of chain smoking and a predominantly junk-food diet, he climbed seven floors to his office on Nov. 9, 2004, had a heart attack and died intestate before any of his Millennium books were published. Or did he? Was he, hmm, killed by right-wing conspiracists?

Further, there is wrangling over his estate, inherited by his father and brother, which is now worth an estimated $32.3-million. His common-law wife, Eva Gabrielsson, was left with nothing, by law, peculiar for a social democrat country. Does Ms. Gabrielsson really have a laptop that contains a chunk of the fourth book Mr. Larsson was writing for the planned 10-book series? Did she even write the books herself?

These questions are all perfect grist for fan fantasies in the absence of another Salander-Blomkvist fix.

Mr. Larsson's death and the subsequent family fight over his estate have added to the mass hysteria swirling around the books, says Megan Boler, a professor in theory and policy studies at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

"The fact that he died during this and the fact that there's some mystery involved with who actually wrote the book, people who hadn't even read the books had heard of this," Prof. Boler said.

She believes even those narratives are part of the promotional push. "I would call this a very successful marketing campaign at a very good time. A number of things came together to make this work."

The season is a big part of it: "The timing worked very well for a dry summer of Hollywood films. This one in particular had a lot of sleepers. A decent mystery film works well, as does the timing of these books being on the bestseller lists."

The Swedish title of his first book was Men Who Hate Women (publishers made him change it). Ms. Gabrielsson says he was an early feminist after witnessing a gang rape when he was 14. There's very little information about his mother. And how about that father - Mr. Larsson, after being farmed out as a baby to his grandparents, didn't know his family until he was 9, and Ms. Gabrielsson says he was never close to them - could he be the model for Salander's monstrous arch-enemy Zalachenko?

THE MYSTERY OF THE MYSTERY

Heavy-handed. Dark. Swedish. Why are these so popular? That is the $64-million question. Especially when there are so many reasons the trilogy shouldn't work.

Yet... an unadulterated hit costs about 35 bucks. Supposed to be addictive, but you can handle it, you'll just have a taste. Suddenly you're mainlining. Bedtime comes and goes. Just a little bit more, you tell yourself, and then you'll go to sleep, you swear! The next day, you're wrecked. Even if you can drag yourself into work, all you can think about is your next fix.

Worst of all? There are only three dosages per customer - so you know it's going to end badly. But maybe you didn't expect the withdrawal pains to be this intense.

"If we take a look at the biochemistry that is produced by this text, it's a very intoxicating read in terms of style, and sex and violence. We know the kinds of jolts these things produce," Ms. Burstyn said.

"I found that my heart beat was affected. It's just one declarative sentence after another, it's like a drumbeat - the pacing and the forcefulness."

Here we deconstruct the phenomenon of the hottest series on the planet.

NO SELF-RESPECTING READER SHOULD LIKE THESE BOOKS

Brand-name-itis: Nobody in Mr. Larsson's books spend a night at home or a hotel, have breakfast, a quick cigarette, then jump in their car and go to work. No, they pay 800 kronor to stay at the Grand Hotel, bolt down a Billys Pan Pizza from 7-11, light up a Lucky Strike, get into a Saab or a Volvo, perhaps while making a call on their Sony-Ericsson, or tapping on their Palm Tungsten T3. As Beth in Atlanta complained in a stieglarsson.com discussion on product placement: "I'm not even halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and he's mentioned the Apple iBook NINE times already."

The coffee tic: In The Thin Man movies, whenever anyone got hurt - be it a metaphorical broken heart or a bullet to the left ventricle - they were invariably offered a cigarette. Rep audiences erupt with affectionate laughter every time this happens. In Mr. Larsson's books, the all-purpose go-to remedy for social awkwardness, brutal assault or the breakdown of trust in our democratic institutions is java, java and more java. And nobody ever laughs.

Endless descriptions of disgusting food: Sandwiches (sometimes closed, often open), frozen food, toast, beet salad. Make no mistake, this series is not set in Paris, or indeed in any cultural setting that sees food as anything other than lumps of calories to fuel the next stage of the investigation.

Implausible consensual sex: While the rape scenes are, sadly, all too believable, the sex lives of Blomkvist and Salander read like pure fantasy. He openly sleeps with a woman he's investigating in book one; a secret service agent who's investigating him in book three; Salander, briefly; and a married co-worker steadily - her husband doesn't mind because he's bisexual and gets around too. Salander has S&M sex with lesbians, spontaneous sex with Blomkvist and perfunctory sex with various stunned men she marches into her bedroom as needed.

All this passes for normal behaviour in permissive Sweden, and so it should, but the all-round open-mindedness defies belief for us puritanical North Americans.

Basic subject matter: Mr. Larsson obviously didn't get the memo that journalism is dead and thrillers need wall-to-wall action. Guns, violence and the occasional motorcycle going slightly over the speed limit on a sunny afternoon are all present, but the bulk of the "action" consists of a flat-chested goth girl and a schlubby middle-aged hack tapping away at their respective computers and sending each other long emails.

Unattractive Swedish people: The actors in the Millennium movies look exactly the way we imagine from the books - i.e., normal, i.e., distinctly unattractive by Hollywood standards (with the exception of the exotically beautiful Noomi Rapace who plays Salander).

THE DELICIOUS REASONS TO ADORE THESE THRILLERS

Unattractive Swedish people: There's never been a heroine quite like Lisbeth Salander. The world of Scandinavian corruption feels equally foreign, which is the main reason the Swedish movies work so brilliantly sans well-known, gorgeous stars. We're in a whole new world here. Perhaps the Hollywood version will succeed, the way State of Play with Russell Crowe attracted more viewers than the vastly superior original British mini-series.

Just announced this week is the casting of Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) as the books' hero, Blomkvist, in a Hollywood remake of the original Swedish movie, which can't but help to amp up the lust factor. Mr. Craig, with his weatherbeaten looks and watery blue eyes at least approaches what a middle-aged Swedish lothario might look like. Noomi Rapace's Salander will be hard to beat.

It's fun to hate Sweden: Perverts, pigs, sadists, men at all levels of society who hate women - looks like holier-than-thou Sweden's social democrat paradise didn't work out so well after all. Mr. Larsson detested generalizations about any group, and was careful to target individuals in both his journalism and his fiction. But as his companion of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, told one British newspaper after his death, the "veil of naivety about a dream-castle country fell with a bang, not with a whimper."

The soothing effects of mind-numbing detail: Readers have diagnosed the seemingly unemotional Salander as having Asperger's or autism. But it's Salander's creator, Stieg Larsson, who can't get through a single page of relentlessly chronological prose without cataloguing his characters' every gesture, along with specific references to items they put on, take off, touch, buy or eat.

The coffee-coffee-coffee chorus becomes the literary equivalent of flicking a light switch on and off. What makes it work is the integrity of his voice. He sincerely, consistently believes it's all important, and so, therefore, do we.

The comfort of moral certitude: It makes sense that Mr. Larsson was also interested in writing science fiction, the last bastion of the righteous moralist. There are no grey areas in the Millennium trilogy, no redemption for the wicked. Just innocent victims and their evil tormenters, who get what they deserve, in excruciating detail - ( spoiler alert) from the retaliatory torture Salander inflicts on her rapist Nils Bjurman in book one to the orgy of vindication during the courtroom scenes with Peter Teleborian in book three.

Vengeful record-keeping: It's revenge-fantasy porn for anyone who's ever obsessed about what they'd say to an ex-boss, ex-lover or anyone else who's injured them - an insanely detailed record of every slight, followed by the abject humiliation of the offender who is proven to be guilty on all counts. Heaven.

Someone, somewhere might want to debate whether the books constitute high art or guilty pleasure. In the meantime, 40 million people are simply taking them home, no questions asked.

With a report from Zosia Bielski

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