V.I. Warshawski, Stephanie Plum, Kinsey Millhone, step aside. Lisbeth Salander is going to kick your butts. The tattooed, diminutive computer hacker -- possibly the most interesting, and certainly the toughest female character ever to come along in crime fiction -- stars in the international best-selling Millennium trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
The first book, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is The Buffalo News Book Club's June selection for beach reading.
And News Book Club readers are in luck, since the final book in Larsson's trilogy has just been published in the United States. This means you can pack "Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" in your beach bag and speed through all 1,800 pages in one go.
Larsson, a magazine editor and outspoken opponent of racism and right-wing extremism, died of a heart attack at 50 in 2004 before any of the books were published.
Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity at Knopf, noted the unprecedented nature of the Larsson phenomenon:
"This is a series of posthumous works in translation, all of which have gone to No. 1 around the world."
He said Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta first heard about Larsson at the 2007 Frankfurt Book Fair, finished "Dragon Tattoo" in one sitting while still in Frankfurt, and "made an offer almost immediately for the trilogy." Swedish-language movies have been made of all three books, and Sony has bought the movie rights for all three, with "Fight Club" director David Fincher set to direct "Dragon Tattoo."
And "Dragon Tattoo" is a page-turner. Elderly Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger has been receiving an exotic flower in the mail for his birthday since his 16-year-old grandniece's disappearance nearly 40 years before. Believing he is being taunted by her killer, Vanger hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist -- who is facing prison in a libel case against another industrialist -- to investigate.
Blomkvist joins forces with 24-year-old security consultant Salander, and the trail leads to a series of shocking rape-murders. At the same time, Salander (a ward of the state, for reasons that become clear in the second book) is dealing in her own way with the predations of her court-appointed guardian.
Larsson packs everything you'd want in a thriller into this gripping novel: an intriguing "locked-room" mystery requiring methodical detective work, a creepy setting on a remote island during the dark Swedish winter, a pulse-pounding surprise finale and fascinating characters in the unlikely detective duo of Blomkvist and Salander.
But it's the political backdrop that adds heft to the books. As Knopf spokesman Bogaards explained Larsson's appeal: "These were thrillers that have the pacing of a freight train, but are books about social justice."
Larsson's villains are sexual predators -- and industrialists and bankers.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich even quoted "Dragon Tattoo" in a column about the current financial meltdown, which Larsson apparently saw coming years before the fact. At one point in "Tattoo," Blomkvist assails financial journalists for treating "mediocre financial whelps like rock stars" and for failing to expose the crimes perpetrated by a world of high finance that depends on "fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions more or less."
The political backdrop has a larger role in the second two books. "The Girl Who Played With Fire" plays out against right-wing Cold War paranoia. "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" explores a right-wing shadow government agency covering up the crimes committed in service of that paranoia. The second book has a cliffhanger ending, and Bogaards admitted that Knopf has "been pilloried, tarred and feathered for our decision" to wait until May 25 to publish the third book. (Many impatient U.S. fans ordered "Hornet's Nest" from Britain.)
Larsson's books are hugely popular in his native Sweden, where they sold more than 3.5 million copies, according to Eva Gedin of Swedish publisher Norstedts.
American fans may be surprised to learn that feisty redhead Pippi Longstocking from Astrid Lindgren's children's books inspired the Lisbeth Salander character. Larsson had "this idea about what Pippi would be like as a grown-up woman," Gedin said.
Larsson's longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, also in an e-mail interview, confirmed the Pippi inspiration for Salander "as the spark to set the thoughts going about a grown-up misfit."
(Pay close attention and you'll notice that Salander has dyed her red hair black; at another point a plaque on a door reads "V. Kulla," apparently a reference to Pippi's home of Villa Villa Kulla.)
Gabrielsson and Larsson never married but had been together for years; they met at a Vietnam War protest when they were both 18. She said Larsson's death "came like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere."
Gabrielsson sees the books less as an attack on "right-wing politics" and more as criticism of the media "and how the scrutinizing power of journalism and publishing has given way to info-tainment."
She adds: "This has weakened the citizens' possibilities to evaluate and understand the differences between a sound society and a rotten one, and has demoralized people's belief that the good and the just are eternal values worth fighting for."
And while she does not believe Larsson would have enjoyed the spotlight of celebrity, "he would have very much enjoyed knowing that the issues brought forward in Millennium were interesting to the readers."
We are interested to hear your thoughts on "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," as well as any suggestions for future Book Club choices. E-mail email@example.com. Or, write to us at: The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieg Larsson; translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Vintage paperback, 608 pages $14.95