Massive, worldwide success often remains a bit enigmatic, but this publishing breakthrough seemed especially unlikely.
The first novel begins with the dull thud of a family tree full of foreign names: The book starts slowly — digging into arcane corporate finances — and the ensuing novels get longer, sometimes nearly skidding to a halt while recounting the structure of a government bureau. The books' politics are radical-feminist and anti-capitalist left, they're set in a country most Americans have never visited and the prose is translated, at times inelegantly.
But Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has become the publishing phenomenon of the young century, with international sales exceeding 45 million. Three films have been produced in Larsson's native Sweden — the trilogy's conclusion, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," will be released here Friday — and David Fincher has begun shooting a big-budget Hollywood version starring Daniel Craig.
Larsson's books have managed, in the 25 months since the first novel's U.S. publication, to go through almost 200 printings here. "That's crazy!" says Paul Bogaards, spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. "The category leaders in thrillers or mysteries take years to get there, if they get there at all."
Financially, Larsson's success has few parallels in publishing. Other authors have sold in the millions, but none has sold as many as quickly as Larsson has. His publisher estimates that by year's end, they will have sold 15 million copies in 2010, or roughly the equivalent of recent works by John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King combined.
The books, Bogaards says, "have had a significant impact on our bottom line. The series has exceeded all projections; indeed, it blew all the models to bits."
And Larsson has managed to do it without a single bookstore signing, author appearance or Charlie Rose interview: He died at 50, in 2004, not long after turning in the manuscripts for the three books. So what's going on here?
"The truth is, I'm not sure, either," Knopf Doubleday chairman Sonny Mehta says when asked about the enigma of the novels' broad popularity. "It raises my spirits to see that people can go crazy about a set of books."
The series, which was a sensation in Scandinavia — selling several million copies in Sweden alone — years before translation into English, has dominated bestseller lists across much of Europe. With the addition of Mongolia and Georgia, Larsson's books are now in print in 46 countries, and have begun to make inroads in Taiwan (350,000 copies sold so far), Japan, China and South Korea.
The books had already become huge hits in Sweden when Mehta was handed a rough translation of the first novel at the 2007 Frankfurt Book Fair.
"It was the complexity of the thing," Mehta, a longtime reader of crime fiction, says of what grabbed him. "Sort of an ambition."
Complex, ambitious novels don't always strike a chord with American readers, especially those from Europe. The trilogy's central installment, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," became the first translated work to debut at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in more than 25 years.
Knopf has long published Larsson's fellow Swede Henning Mankell — whose grim police procedurals have an international following — and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the husband-and-wife team that created the modern Scandinavian mystery in the '60s.
But none of these books — nor the literary noir of Norway's Karin Fossum, nor Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason — has a Lisbeth Salander, the "girl" of the book's English titles.
Salander — the survivor of an abusive childhood who resembles a Goth Pippi Longstocking — is a withdrawn, sometimes violent, sexually kinky computer hacker with a dark charisma. In the novels she collaborates, often warily, with Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing investigative journalist who in many ways resembles Larsson. (Though a rather ordinary looking middle-aged man, Blomkvist' sense of mission is catnip to women.)
Sara Nelson, books director of O: The Oprah Magazine, says the heroine's ambiguity is part of her appeal. "She's not terribly well defined," Nelson says, pointing to her complicated sexuality. "Is she lovable? Yes, but she's not necessarily likable. Lisbeth is a hybrid, but the books are hybrids too — a chronicle of the media business, a comment on society.... It's not a standard police procedural."
Otto Penzler, editor, with James Ellroy of "The Best American Noir of the Century," thinks the books benefit from being less gloomy than most Nordic crime fiction.
But most of their appeal, he says, comes down to Salander being "the most interesting character I've read since Hannibal Lecter. Everybody reading is so deeply and seriously captivated — you're relentlessly fascinated to know what she'll do next, say next, what stroke of genius will bring her to a solution. To me that series doesn't exist without her."
The novels may have entered the market with the perfect set of signifiers: The story of a middle-aged man and young, tech-savvy woman, published in hardback by one of the classiest houses, a populist genre from a country with art-house associations — in other words, novels that are hard to pigeonhole.
It didn't hurt, Nelson says, that there was a darkly romantic back story about a writer who had died before his books' publication. The existence of three — and only three — novels was appealing, she says: Readers were reassured that this would not become one of those mystery series that stretches endlessly.
The Swedish films probably didn't hurt international sales, and the economic roller coaster of the last few years — politically, Larsson's anti-corporate, anti-state rage suits anger on the left and the right — may have given the novels a broader resonance.
Still, the bigger impact of these books — besides their enormous sales — is unclear. Nelson fears novelists unleashing a rash of Salander clones; Penzler expects that newer Scandinavian writers (his money is currently on Camilla Läckberg) will benefit.
In November, Knopf will release a boxed set of the three novels as well as a short book of essays on the author that includes a selection of his previously unpublished e-mail correspondence (despite rumors that Larsson left a fragment of another novel or two, Mehta is skeptical that this work will ever appear).
Mehta is still surprised by the whole thing. But he's pleased to see a rise in the sales of Mankell's backlist as more Americans wake up to Nordic noir.
"Readers have found that they can feel at home in a Scandinavian landscape," Mehta says. "If they enjoy Larsson, there's plenty more for them to discover."