"So let me get this straight, Mr Larsson, you intend to write a trilogy set in contemporary Sweden which will assume a close knowledge of recent Swedish politics. All three novels will be closely interconnected, so that anyone starting, say, with Book Two will have only the haziest idea of what's going on. And finally, your heroine Lisbeth Salander is going to be a stick-thin bisexual computer genius who's also borderline autistic... Mr Larsson — may I call you Stieg? — welcome aboard, this train is bound for Bestsellerdom."
Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (translated by Reg Keeland) is the oddest publishing success story in years. For those not already up to ramming speed, a brief recap is in order. Larsson, one of Sweden's foremost left-wing journalists, wrote the three Millennium novels for his own amusement — although it's said he jokingly referred to them as his pension. Shortly after delivering them to his publisher in 2004, he dropped dead of a heart attack aged 50.
The first two books have gone on to sell 10 million copies worldwide, thus making Larsson the second best-selling author in the world last year — Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner, was the first. In the UK, the initial publishing run for the hardback of the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, was 110,000 copies. Another 60,000 were printed within days of publication. Praise has rained down on all three books — some of it from unlikely quarters. A Guardian editorial hailed Larsson's genius and also his understanding of "the brutal non-ethics of global capital."
But leaving aside the brutal non-ethics of global capital for a moment, there's a more fundamental question to be asked — namely, are the books any good? And here things get a little more complicated. What's immediately plain is that Larsson's Sweden is a long way away from the wholesome delights of its tourist brochures. Like his compatriot, Henning Mankell, Larsson sees Sweden as a dark, often depraved place, where unrepentant fascists hold positions of enormous power and where men are constantly seeking to subjugate, if not humiliate, women.
There may be a degree of exaggeration here, but there's also a kernel of truth: one of the key plot-strands of the Millennium Trilogy is based on revelations that a secret intelligence agency existed within the Swedish armed forces in the 1970s. As for the misogyny, incidents of violence against women in Sweden rose by 40 per cent in the 1990s.