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Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy Is About Swedish Crime, Politics and One Very Tough 'Girl'

Poster for the film version
Poster for the film version

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BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Visit any airport, train station, or coffee shop in the United States this summer, and chances are you will find someone reading a book by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. The three books that make up his Millennium series have sold over thirty-five million copies around the world.

They have also been made into a series of successful movies. The books tell a complex and heart-pounding story filled with violence, crime and sex. Larsson’s books are some of the most recent additions to a wide body of crime novels from Scandinavian countries including Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.


BARBARA KLEIN: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is made up of three books: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” The “girl” in all these books is Lisbeth Salander, an independent young woman with a very dark and secretive past.

Salander is a very interesting character. She wears black clothes, metal body jewelry and has several tattoos on her body. She is strange and antisocial. But she is also extraordinarily smart and has a photographic memory. Lisbeth uses her technological skills to illegally break into computer systems to do her research and expose criminals. She will stop at nothing to punish the people who have wronged her and those she cares about.

STEVE EMBER: Mikael Blomkvist is the main male character in the books. He is a hard-working reporter living in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. He works for a small, independent publication called “Millennium.”

In the three books, Blomkvist and Salander work on solving a series of violent and troubling crimes. They involve political and financial corruption, drug dealing, torture and sex slavery. The books tell very complex stories with many characters, places and storylines. They also tell about many realities that exist within modern Swedish society.

BARBARA KLEIN: Maureen Corrigan is a public radio commentator and English professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. We talked with her about why Stieg Larsson’s books are so popular with American readers.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: “I think that we love the image of someone who acts independently. And, certainly the main character in these books, Lisbeth Salander, answers to no one in terms of her actions. I think we love that ideal image of someone who can take care of themselves. We’ve loved it since the earliest days of our literature.”

Professor Corrigan lists the books of James Fenimore Cooper and the ideal of the American cowboy as examples that express this independence.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: “Lisbeth Salander is yet another incarnation of this loner figure who really can take care of herself and also put the world to rights, to a certain extent, all on her own.”


STEVE EMBER: In many ways, Mikael Blomkvist’s character is very similar to the writer who created him.

British television's version of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" series
British television's version of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" series

Stieg Larsson was born in nineteen fifty-four in the Vasterbotten area of northern Sweden. When he was one year old, his parents moved to Stockholm. They sent their son to live with his grandparents. Stieg later joined his parents in the capital. As a boy, he showed a great interest in writing.

BARBARA KLEIN: But Stieg Larsson did not start his career writing best-selling books. He worked as a graphic designer and as a reporter. Larsson was interested in uncovering information about extremist groups such as neo-Nazis. He was also an active supporter of the liberal political movement.

In nineteen seventy-two he met Eva Gabrielsson at a demonstration protesting the war in Vietnam. Though they never married, Larsson and Gabrielsson would become life partners.


In nineteen ninety-five, Larsson helped create the Swedish magazine “Expo.” The publication says its goal is to protect democracy and freedom of speech by studying and documenting extremist and racist groups in society.

He and other reporters wanted to discuss the growing “white-power” culture in Sweden. Larsson and the writers he worked with would quickly become the target of threats and hateful criticism from neo-Nazi groups.

In his free time, Larsson began writing a series of ten crime novels.

BARBARA KLEIN: One of the subjects Larsson explores in his books is violence toward women. In fact, the Swedish title of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” translates as “Men Who Hate Women.” Larsson saw these books as a way to show the modern realities of discrimination and violence toward women.

After Larsson had finished two books and had started on a third, he began to search for a publisher and soon signed a deal. However, Stieg Larsson did not live long enough to finish the series or enjoy the huge success the books would bring him. He died in November of two thousand four of a heart attack at age fifty. The three books he completed were published after his death.


STEVE EMBER: Stieg Larsson’s death has led to several disputes surrounding his books. He died without leaving an official legal document describing what should happen to his property and money. Larsson and Eva Gabrielsson never married. So, Swedish law does not recognize their relationship.

Income from the Millennium books and movies has gone to Larsson’s father and brother. Many people, including Ms. Gabrielsson, feel that she has a moral right to share in the profit of the books that her partner created. She has said she would have liked to have the right to help make decisions related to the business his books produce.

BARBARA KLEIN: Some people have also raised questions about whether Larsson was a skillful enough writer to produce these books and whether Eva Gabrielsson helped him write them.

And then there is the question of a fourth book. Larsson’s family may own the rights to the Millennium books and movies. But reports say Eva Gabrielsson has Larsson’s personal computer which contains part of his work on the series’ fourth novel.

STEVE EMBER: Ms. Gabrielsson has said that she plans to answer these questions in her own book, which will be published in France this fall. She says she plans to set the record straight about the claims people have made about her and her life with Stieg Larsson.


Fans of Stieg Larsson’s series can see the stories brought to life in film. The Swedish movie versions of the books have been very successful. Actress Noomi Rapace skillfully represents Lisbeth Salander’s strength and independence.

The books will also be made into American movies. The American version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” will begin filming next month and is set to be released next year. British actor Daniel Craig is to play the role of Mikael Blomkvist. On Monday, movie producers announced that American actress Rooney Mara will play Lisbeth Salander.

STEVE EMBER: People who want to more fully experience the world of the Millennium trilogy can travel to Sweden. The Stockholm City Museum offers walking tours of the city. Visitors can see the many areas where events take place in the books. The tour starts at Mikael Blomkvist’s apartment building then continues on to his office as well as Lisbeth Salander’s home.


BARBARA KLEIN: Stieg Larsson has received a huge amount of attention over the past few years. But many other established Swedish and Scandinavian crime writers have been successful long before him.

For example, Swedish writer Henning Mankell has been writing since the nineteen seventies. His mystery novels have sold millions of copies. He is especially well known for his series of books about a detective named Kurt Wallander.

Best-selling Swedish writer Camilla Lackberg has written seven crime books. Her novel “The Ice Princess” was recently translated into English. Other Scandinavian crime writers include Norwegians Jo Nesbø and Karin Fossum.

STEVE EMBER: Professor Maureen Corrigan praises the work of other Swedish crime writers including Henning Mankell. But she says that Stieg Larsson’s books show a whole other level of detail and complexity involving characters, storylines and subject matter.

We asked Professor Corrigan why crime novels are such a special part of Swedish culture.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: “There is something about the Swedish character and obviously the locale that lends itself to these works of literature that like to look on the dark and gloomy side of life…And the Swedes are just really good at taking that genre and using it to look at their own society and the cracks in their own society and by extension the cracks in capitalist societies across the world.”


BARBARA KLEIN: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Tell us what you think about these books. You can comment on our website, Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.