Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus

September 10, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 101 5 min read

covercovercoverAn investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer. A journalist’s creed is more like “tell, clarify, prove, cite, reiterate.” When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing. Such is the Millennium trilogy by investigative journalist Stieg Larsson, composed of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which currently sits atop every bestseller list in the country. It’s also one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read.

The Millennium trilogy, so named for the magazine where he works, is the story of Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his frenemy and sometimes collaborator Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive computer hacker who most likely has Asperger’s (and definitely has a dragon tattoo). It’s a thriller told with a journalist’s obsessive devotion to detail, classification, and explication, so that it reminds me of nothing so much as intermediate fiction, where a good deal of stating the obvious is common. Stieg’s characters respond to plot twists with broad, stock reactions taken straight from the repertoire of middle school plays. Their eyes bulge, they freeze in terror, they audibly gasp. When one character learned of a murder of good friends, she “put her hand over her mouth” and “sat down on the stairs.” She was surprised, you see.

Then there’s this description of happiness – “Her smile grew bigger and she suddenly felt a warmth that she had not felt in a long time filling her heart” – that makes you wonder if Stieg was an alien who learned about human emotions from a dictionary.

Most other useful information is inserted awkwardly into dialogue, such as when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a gun shot wound to the head, and the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:

There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?

In fact, although much has been made about Stieg’s unique heroine, she spends a large part of the second book in hiding and most of the third book in the hospital. The majority of those two books is told through the dialogue of other characters. Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski:

“Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.”

“My family comes from Armenia. And yours?”


“How can I help you?”

Stieg will never let anything happen in his book without telling you about it at least 97 times. No coincidence goes unremarked, such as in this conversation between a writer and his editor:

“I stumbled across something I think I had better check out before the book goes to the printer.”

“Ok – what is it?”

“Zala, spelled with a Z.”

“Ah. Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of and nobody wants to talk about.”

“That’s him.”

Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.

These constant, gratuitous recaps might be useful in a book that is hard to follow, where the plot moves at breakneck speed, or where the characters are multi-faceted and pulled by opposing motives. None of those conditions apply here.

Which brings us to another glaring flaw in Stieg’s estimation of humanity. There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women. This is not to say that hating women is the only thing that makes you a bad person, but rather that, in Stieg’s world, any major flaw is always coupled with mysogyny. The mobster/drug dealer beats and rapes his girlfriends. The corrupt psychiatrist has thousands of pornographic pictures on his computer. The bad cop just plain hates women.

Men Who Hate Women is the Swedish title of the first book, and the common enemy of all the good people in the book, Mikael and Lisbeth especially. Lisbeth is motivated by personal vengeance. Stieg is motivated by how perfect he is as a human being. I’m sorry, I mean Mikael. It’s easy to confuse the two, so let me set them apart. Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.

Having used his imagination and flair for nuance to create Mikael the character, Stieg sends him out into Sweden to avenge the oppressed. He faces down embezzlers, rapists, secret agents, and gangsters, then he exposes them in his magazine. When he is cautioned from publishing a controversial story, he actually says, “That’s not the way we do things at Millennium.”

In one gaspingly improbable scene, his superior sleuthing earns him a meeting with the prime minister, who thanks him for his work and starts divulging state secrets. One of the other perks of being so exemplary is that, with no effort on his part, women throw themselves at him.

In the 1000 pages or so of the trilogy, Mikael never says anything charming, never does anything romantic, never goes out of his way to woo anyone. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mikael falls in with a 6-foot blonde ex-gymnast federal agent, and this is his move:

“How long have you been working out?”

“Since I was a teenager.”

“And how many hours a week do you do it?”

“Two hours a day. Sometimes three.”

“Why? I mean, I understand why people work out, but…”

“You think it’s excessive.”

“I’m not sure exactly what I think.”

She smiled and did not seem at all irritated by his questions.

“Maybe you’re just bothered by seeing a woman with muscles. Do you think it’s a turn-off, or unfeminine?”

“No, not at all. It suits you somehow. You’re very sexy.”

Who wouldn’t want to hit the sheets with this guy? Nonetheless, he is irresistible to women. How do we know? Because Stieg tells us so. And because all the women he sleeps with in the trilogy (roughly half of the primary female characters) do us the favor to reflect at length at how great he is in the sex department. In what claims the (hard-won) prize as most tasteless passage in the series, a victim of decades of sexual abuse ruminates on how she thought she’d never sleep with another man, until she met our middle-aged, out of shape, Swedish Adonis.

Of course, even she is aware that he’s sleeping with someone else, his married best friend and co-editor Erika, whose husband is cool with it. Stieg so delights in this open marriage/lover situation that he re-explains the dynamic a handful of times each book. Erika, in turn, knows about two other people Mikael is sleeping with at about the same time in the first book. His sexual partners have a way of running into each other, having emotionless conversations about what they share, and then accepting that they can hardly be expected to keep him to themselves.

All the women in the Millennium trilogy are strong, independent, and intelligent, living in a world simply seething with men who want to abuse or repress them. Federal agent gymnast Monica, magazine editor Erika, and computer genius Lisbeth all appear as resilient victims living amidst rampant sexism. But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.

In any other book, I would see these tactics as pandering to the baser instincts of the reading public. But in this book, in which Mikael is so obviously a stand-in for Stieg, it’s just tacky. Especially since this Stieg/Mikael amalgamation has also appointed himself head of the Respecting Women Committee. For someone so earnestly devoted to preserving and protecting the rights of the modern woman, it’s strange that Stieg couldn’t conceive of one who could do without his manhood.

Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. This column summarizes exactly my problem with the series. Lisbeth Salander is an original character, but she is pushed into the background so that readers can follow the adventures of Mikael Blomkvist, super stud. I had another problem with the books that Janet failed to mention: the excruciatingly dull subplots involving the minutiae of running a Swedish daily newspaper.

  2. Why do we constantly reward excruciating writing with bestseller status? I couldn’t make it past page 60 of the first book, so I admire you for getting through all three and then writing an honest review. These books should be examples of how not to write. They seem to do everything wrong.

  3. I am honestly, totally, mystified by the success of these books. Who can possibly enjoy such unadulterated drivel? And they’re doorstops as well.

  4. Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?

  5. Although I haven’t read this series, I find the final thought of this critique to be spot on concerning the literary world that readers frightfully navigate these days. I’ll assume that the commenter at 9:57AM is unfamiliar with the concept of criticism.

  6. I think this piece is only half a story. I don’t believe anyone really need an article such as this to know that the Millenium Trilogy is badly written (except Mario Vargas Llosa, maybe). The real question is why the bestselling books in the world are consistently “poorly written, erotic fan fiction”. How is it that poorly written prose can seduce millions? How is it, on the other hand, that good writing can’t find it’s way more regularly to the bestseller lists? Has good writing failed to live up to it’s promise?

  7. To what extent does the translation process play a part in the dullness of the text? I haven’t read either the original nor the translation, and I’m not sure I want to, but considering the original is not in English I wonder if it has had impact on the overall impression.

    Also, ahem, if I may point out there is a “dedicating” which I believe ought to be “dedicated”, and I’m wondering if perhaps Mikael “falls in LOVE with” the ex-gymnast, rather than merely “falls in with” her? ^^

  8. This agrees with my criticism of the 2nd book (since after the first I somehow didn’t see how repetitive the series would be) when Lisbeth has a relationship with another woman.You could just feel Larsson perving on the lesbian sex scenes while pretending to write about it because he is a modern, progressive Swede. Turned me off more than the rest of the hack-y writing.

  9. Ok, I’ll admit that I read the first two books because I enjoyed the escapism. Then I read the third book, which was soooo dammmmn awwwwful that it gave me time to reflect on the series and I realized just how smarmy and lecherous Kalle Fucking Blokmvkiskt really is. I mean, sure, he’s supposed to be the journalistic equivalent to James Bond, but I doubt even Bond would bed a girl who he KNOWS is psychologically traumatized and abused, especially not when a HUGE deal is made about her looking like a child. How freaking creepster is that?

    We won’t get into what a lazy journalist Kalle is, nor that Lisbeth’s two speeds are rage and conniving. Nor that Erika is simply a stand-in for the typical successful woman who deserves to be used sexually and punished professionally for being successful (though she gets her sorta-kinda-comeuppance, she’s still chased back to her little “successful” fringe publication, where she belongs, away from the annals of “big boy” business).

    It’s all enough to make me want to claim that Twilight is a feminist tract in comparison…

  10. Wurdnurd, I agree with you. I sped through the first 2 books and even though I noted the misogyny and narcissistic tendencies, I liked Salander so much, I wanted more. Then I hit the 3rd book and thought, “who the hell wrote this?” The style changed a great deal and endless pages of “blah, blah, blah” about politics and such that added nothing to the story. Very violent books – not sure I care to see the new movie when it comes out.

    Oh well, they were fun while they lasted and I do miss Salander, but Kalle Blomkvist not so much. All I can say is, based on these books, Swedish women must have a really hard time finding suitable mates who don’t abuse, hate, or otherwise harm women. Plus, what’s with all of the coffee?!!

  11. The trouble with blogs and main stream media in general, is that naysayers and contrarians get more play than they deserve. And there are always plenty of around the marginal pundits willing to exploit it for their personal gain.

    “Those that can do. Those that can’t, now tear up those that can in petty little blog entries.”

  12. I do take issue with this review in some part. I do agree that the texts themselves do clunk around in places and the rampant magnetism of Kalle is off-putting. However, I feel like the review is a touch disingenuous – why read all three if you hate the first one? Clearly, Potter’s was a journey less about evaluation as it was about search and destroy. Once the target had presented itself there was the choice to disengage or to push through and attack. I’m not saying Potter’s insights aren’t valuable or incorrect, I am just questioning her motives in publishing the essay. If one book is bad for you and two books are worse – dear God, why go on to a third? That’s not Criticism (big C) that’s criticism (little c).

    Again, I feel Potter’s points are well formed, but ultimately useless since I am not sure what her purpose is. If it is to expose the sham of popularity – well, the comment board is full of readers who enjoy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes (but only after sampling the book, or maybe books, just to make sure) and that is bit blasé and boring. Yes, you’re smarter than the average person. Yes, you’re better read. Yes, the public will always turn to Dan Brown over Faulkner. That’s just the way it is. You can scream all you want that emperor is stark naked, but no one’s gonna listen. Congratulations on being the voice in the wilderness. I type this knowing that I’m that person also. I fully admit it. I am appalled and shocked by the philistine masses and their James Pattersons, but I never mistake those books for what they’re not.

    My other issue with this review is not only the lack of purpose, but also the ignorance of expectation. Its a genre thriller. When have you ever read a noir based book where the hero (obviously male) was not irresistible to the fairer sex? When have you read a thriller that valued style over plot? This trilogy is a genre trilogy. Genre carries certain expectations and tropes, and if you say otherwise it’s just self-serving. I don’t think you can be upset about what was never going to be there. If you go in expecting nuance and subtle shades of humanity, you’re not a wise reader. I understand that pointing out the narcissistic streak in the book is a valid response, however I do have to condemn the condemnation for the book not to be better than it is. Did you expect Tolstoy? Morrison?

    Mickey Spillane put it best when he said “Those big-shot writers … could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar”

    I would add “big shot readers” as well. This series is salted peanuts. Anyone who is hoping it will taste like caviar is way off base.

  13. I tend to agree with Frank. Can the naysayers please refer us to the bestselling books they’ve written. I’d love to read them. After all shouldn’t we want a variety of writing, not all “Grapes of Wrath”? I am certain Dan Brown took his slings and arrows right to the bank. And amazingly, some people love to read the very books that have been excoriated here. If you read all three of Larsson’s novels, who made you do it?

    Frank also alludes to the fact that we tend to get more angry rants about these books. I guess those of us who enjoyed the read are fearful of being judged low brow.

    By the way, did anyone like Shirley Hazzard’s novel “The Great Fire”? Now there is a great book. But you now what, I enjoyed both levels of writing. Variety my friends.

  14. Having read the series, and having read the critique I have to agree with critiques of the critic. Just because you did not like something does not mean that others should agree with you. I am so glad that you are the others who agree with you have much better taste. while I love filet mignon I also really enjoy hamburgers. Your critique is very much of a vegetarian telling someone that hamburgers taste horrible. To you maybe. you should get over yourself.

  15. This review is a necessary and very welcome corrective to the way that Larsson has been overpraised. He is being pushed as not merely an entertaining genre writer but as a talented literary crime novelist in the vein of Patricia Cornwell or John Le Carre or Elmore Leonard. If his publishers market him in literary crime fiction terms, then it’s fair to criticize him in those terms. It’s doubly fair given the high hypocrisy of the novels, which pretend to trade in feminism and human rights but actually trade in grotesque violent sexism and cruelty. It’s not only unobjectionable but essential for critics to call Larsson on this hypocrisy, and to remind readers that other popular crime writers have set an exceptionally high standard for this genre — a standard that Larsson doesn’t begin to meet.

  16. You are completely right in your analysis of the flaws in Larsson’s writing and construction. I’ve been surprised at the gushing vacuousness of the reviews to date.

    That said, I *still* enjoyed the books tremendously. To me they are comic books that lay out an extended revenge fantasy. The buildup through all of the silly plot sidetracks, whether the long visit to the Caribbean in the second novel or, in fact, the entire first novel, is for me just a way of delaying the final scene.

    Of course almost everything about Blomkvist is trash, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of Lisbeth’s pleasure at riding down the road on a Harley, having just trashed two thugs.

    I spent some time analyzing the structure of the argument in which Teleborian is discredited in Salander’s trial. The logic isn’t just weak, it’s almost completely vacuous. A good prosecutor would have shredded Salander’s attorney. That doesn’t detract from the entertainment value of Teleborian’s arrest, however. I learned years ago how to suspend disbelief.

    In the final analysis I agree with you intellectually but manage to share the emotional pleasure of the hoi-polloi in this decidedly flawed effort. Here’s a clear demonstration of how the combination can be greater than the sum of the parts.

  17. You crtical people are missing the bigger picture. there is a reason for all the detail. there are people asking question about the timing of the author’s death!
    the “elite” literatry people should step back and see the big picture.
    there could be important motives for the way he approached the “fiction”.

  18. The writing is fair at best; the plotting is pretty good however.

    The guy is a journalist who wrote some novels — and if it’s true that he dumped the MSS all at once on his publisher and died soon after, he never got to participate in the editing process or to make later books better based on what he learned from the earlier ones.

    Loving or hating these books would be equally silly. You read ’em breathlessly to find out what happens, and you’re done. Big deal. I mostly read history, pretty dry stuff at times, so I enjoy chilling out with pageturners now and then. It’s not an aesthetic crime.

  19. Mr. Andy Pederson,
    I think we can assume Ms. Potter read all three books because that’s her job; Whereas you post bloated, self-righteous drivel on comment boards for no good reason at all. Congratulations, we’re all proud you.

  20. This is such a wonderful comments thread, I don’t even know where to begin…

    René López Villamar asks: “How is it that poorly written prose can seduce millions? How is it, on the other hand, that good writing can’t find it’s way more regularly to the bestseller lists?”
    The answer, regrettably, René LV, is that the “millions” are largely speaking illiterates and are easily herded into orderly queues to purchase drivel like this. The “millions” are not interested in “good writing”, they’re interested in passing the time, appearing hip, and being up-to-speed in the unlikely event of anyone they know asking what they’re “reading” at the moment.

    “there are always plenty of around the marginal pundits”
    If you mean “irrelevant, not central, unimportant, gadflys” then the phrase is in fact “around the margins”. Unless The Marginal is a neighbourhood / soda fountain / artistic retreat that you are singling out. In which case, carry on.

    @Andy, Andy, Andy Pederson.
    “This trilogy is a genre trilogy. Genre carries certain expectations and tropes, and if you say otherwise it’s just self-serving.”
    (a) the article never said “otherwise”. Just because it’s genre, it doesn’t follow it has to be shit. Which these books are.
    (b) what are the “expectations and tropes” that Larsson is fulfilling? That plots have to be held up by clumsy, interminable exposition? That the protagonist should be a wish-fulfillment version of the author? That everything is a vast conspiracy that can be unwrapped by the unimpeachable intellect and instinct of one person?
    (c) you are *missing the point*. Go back and read the article.

    @George Wright: how amusing that you choose *Steinbeck* as an opposing example to all the nasty, elitist sneers in the article and comments.
    “But you now what, I enjoyed both levels of writing. Variety my friends.”
    Variety, but not spelling?

    @sleep: I’m sorry, but reading your comment was like watching that confusing movie Inception. Filet mignon…burgers…vegetarian..back to burgers…who’s eating what now? And who likes what? Why no mention of dairy?

    And just when the throbbing vein on my temple was about to pop, just when a long lie down in a dark room bathing my temples in eau-de-cologne seemed indicated, along comes @bj dinto.
    Thank you my friend, truly thank you, for pointing out the reality behind these “novels”. i just hope your work is successful and you catch the bastards who got poor Steig.

  21. Mr. Mark Jackson,

    (and I do appreciate the formality)

    Ms. Potter does have more than ample right to her opinion. And in most cases I found that I do agree with her (her recent assessment of Per Petterson comes to mind), and I assume that I also have a right since the comment board is not restricted to professional critics only.

    I posted my opinion about the focus and, what I perceived to be, a lack of reasonable expectation in her review. She picked out the clunkiest dialogue, she zeroed in on the oversexualized hero and left out anything that did not fit her narrative, thereby making the trilogy appear to be made up only of the sum total of Ms. Potter’s insights (which I don’t believe to be the case – I do, as I stated before, believe that she makes valid arguments, but I think there is more to the books than simply that perspective).

    My point, which I do concede may have been bloated (but indeed no more self-righteous than your admonishment of my right to an opinion) may have not come across so clearly. I am suspicious of any review that does not attempt to balance a perspective agaist rational view of a genre. This goes for uber-positive and uber-dismissive reviews.

    I am a book snob with a populist soft-spot. I am also interested in engaging discussion about the nature and purpose of book reviewing. If my reply was not adding to the coversation, I apologize. I was, however, attempting to add to the discussion instead of simply attacking. I pointed out my reasons, and I still hold to that. I invite the same of my words. It’s an opinion about a book, nothing more (on a book blog comment board) and your level of offense at my statements seem to be a bit misplaced. And I thank you for this opportunity to clarify a bit.

    I am a champion of the literary novel. I enjoy complex fiction, but I do not get frustrated with David Foster Wallace for not being Tom Clancy. I do think rational expectation

  22. Let us remember that this is a translation from Swedish to English. Nothing ever translates perfectly and to mince words about colloquialisms and analogies is foolish. They just don’t translate as they are written. Bottom line, It is a good story. Is it best seller worthy? Probably not. Did the recent film up sales? You betcha. And it will stay up there for a while cause Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon as well for an American remake.

  23. As a person with Aspergers I have been reading the series with interest, especially since like Lisbeth Salander I have both Aspergers and have had significantly been traumatized. I actually love it because I love detail. The way the books are written make me think the author may have Aspergers as well. I am writing a book about a part of my life. Before I started I discussed with several people my fear that it would be too detailed and I would not be able to figure out how to tell the story so that neurotypicals(as Aspies call normal people) would find it interesting. But, I do know many neurotypicals that absolutely love these books and the characters. The fact that they are popular would seem to disagree with your assesment of them. Not every book is for every person.

  24. Oh yes the books that was put on high standards and after reading them-boom why did I buy the books and what was so great about them.. I ask myself why do people who ever they are do this to people like me–all the hype. I am going to more honest about books when it comes to a un-known author sometimes a person is better off reading those people’s books. They are writers and authors who need a break. I read a book I bought from Amazon and it was a un-known author and it was great. Everyone is a un-known until the become a well known. I am sure people who write comments maybe some of them have a book and no-doubt it is good. Do we have to be famous for a book to sell or die. I don’t mean to sound mean or hurt anyone’s feelings.
    Well enough said: I have a question to anyone who can help me out. I wrote a proposal for a children’s program. It is good and educational and the book comes out in two weeks on Amazon called Doonie the rainbow dog with a theme song. Does anyone know anyone who knows anybody who might be interested in a children’s program. I am serious and if it ever happens to make it or do good I want to help children with cancer, had cancer myself. This is a serious dedication to what I want to do, it is a promise I made after I recovered from cancer and five surgeries. I believe when a person makes a promise like this you must follow through. Anyway if someone on here knows who I can get in touch with– I appreciate it so much. I did not mean to get off the subject but there are lot of wonderful, smart people on here and just thought I would ask.
    Thanks and bless all.

  25. I hope I did not sound to harsh about that book–dragon tattoo. I have read many comments on here and people on here are smart, wonderful people who might have a book that is super.

    If I was to harsh then I am sorry, I just hate hurting people’s feeling’s. I would never make a good president. I worry about hurting others in life and when I say to much then I think why did I say that—okay enough from me.. have a good weekend.


  26. Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.

    You don’t gain this much success from hype alone. These books are written to be enjoyed be the reader, and many people enjoy them. Stop pulling them apart like a psychotherapist and accept that popular mainstream literature can actually be good…..

    I could rant for ever but there’s no point. Definitely ‘one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read’ too……………………oh dear lord.

  27. Maybe a dumb point, but I’m actually glad that millions of people are still reading books. Some of these readers will progress to reading something more substantial.

    Also, I think reading stuff like Larson’s, is not necessarily a waste of time. It requires dozens of hours of concentration, engages the imagination and teaches one new things (I, for one, know a lot more about Sweden than I did before I read these books).

    These books are not gourmet stuff. They are pizza. I don’t ALWAYS want a filet mignon and a nice glass of Bourdeux. Sometimes I just want pizza. If Christmas was every day, it would cease being special.

  28. Great review! I thought I was nuts–so many smart, well-read people I know recommended this series to me and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It took me 500 pages to get into the second book (how could you fail to mention the detailed descriptions of what Lisbeth bought at Ikea?!), and then by the end I felt like something was missing. Like, I love how much Larsson mentions Erika’s big dilemma about leaving Millennium, but then there’s no closure (oh wait–that’s to keep you hooked for the third book…snore).

    I am happy people are reading, too, Siggi, but that doesn’t mean that I expect people who make a living analyzing literature for its multiple layers and meanings to sit down with a Billy’s Pan Pizza (which, we all know, is Lisbeth’s favorite!) and just shut down their critical faculties. I am kind of surprised how many people who hate literary criticism bothered to read this review. :)

  29. I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks:

    ** When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing.

    So, how come it is a best-seller? Could it be that the attention to the detail of the injustices of Swedish law is part of the appeal?

    ** the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:

    ** “There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?”

    Could it be that Stieg wants us to know that Salander is in good hands, and that the medicos in Sweden will move heaven and earth to save lives, even the lives of possible murderers? Surely not!

    ** Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski: “Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.” “My family comes from Armenia. And yours?” “Poland.” “How can I help you?”

    I’d like to see this exchange in the original Swedish. It is a translation, after all. A lot of the awkwardnesses in this book might not even be Stieg’s fault.

    ** Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.

    Sounds like snobbery to me: attacking the man for attempting to make the book more accessible to lazier readers doesn’t sound fair to me

    ** There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women.

    Tough. The books are adult fairy tales, and can be enjoyed as such.

    ** Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.

    So we are supposed to castigate the author for writing about something he knows a lot about???

    ** But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.

    Actually, no, it is almost always Salander who saves them, and she also saves Mikael on numerous occasions. Or was Janet Potter reading the other version with Mikael as the hero and Salander playing the bit part?

    ** It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.

    And what, pray tell, is wrong with erotic fan fiction?

  30. After a rather lengthy review in which Jane Potter seems to be trying to convince herself that she can’t stand Steig’s Trilogy she ends up approving the books’ genre, the plot and the characters. She concludes however that the Trilogy is ‘One of the worst series of books I’ve ever read’ which is a desparate and rather silly statement from a supposedly serious reviewer. Singling out bits of dialogue for derision from 1500 pages of translated dialogue only adds to the confusion of this rather sloppy review. I suspect Ms Potter enjoyed these cracking novels but she just couldn’t bring herself to admit it.

  31. I love the passion this review has stirred up; it’s nice to see people arguing in public over the merits of books. On the other hand, guys, it’s just a review. Like every review ever written, it’s one person’s opinion and she’s entitled to it.

    If Janet Potter didn’t like this series, it doesn’t mean she’s an elitist snob who can’t handle genre. It just means she didn’t like this series and successfully pitched a piece to the editor of The Millions about it.

  32. Hey….has anyone heard of just plain, old escape reading? Come on, in a world that is so full of animosity, uncertainty and just plain old meanness, what’s a little escapism once in awhile. While I agree with the plot, the message and all of the other well thought out points, this review reads like the author just trying to sell a book. Have fun with this response because I really dont care

  33. In the first book (I haven’t read the others) lizbeth rescues micael’s butt from torture/certain death at the end, and then she drives the psychopath murderer–by following him on her motorcycle–into driving into a truck and instant death.

    did I miss something? You can hate this book for it’s cliche writing (although I think the reference to the “heart” can even feel a little refreshing after too much “fresh” to the point of emotionless pablum written in fiction workshops) but his hero at least in the first book is the straight man among the more fascinating (and heroic) female characters.

    Strangely, I don’t even care too if he’s writing his own fan fiction (in the other books?), at least to a point. I would still rather live in larsson’s world where women are strong and creepy bad guys are caught and punished than that the world of stiltedly perfected irony of someone like literary phenom jonathon franzen…..meh….

  34. @cojoco: Sincere apologies, I meant to post a detailed reposnse to *your* detailed response but I find myself unable to concentrate due to having repeatedly butted my head off the table while reading your post.

    I’ll try to tackle it once I’m over the concussion.

  35. I totally second Emily Mandel’s comment–I love the dialogue here, and I wish people wouldn’t lash out at Ms. Potter for her opinion, although it’s fine to disagree and to state why.

    I read and enjoyed the first book in the trilogy, even with the bad writing. The mystery was just so dang good! The second book I found supremely boring, and I won’t be reading the third.

    For me (and maybe not for others) when the prose of a book is uninspired or riddled with cliches, I find it hard to ‘escape’ into it. Prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself can be wonderful, and I suspect that a book driven by story and drama is aiming for that. In fact, such prose is really, really hard to write!

    When I read bad sentences (and yes, it’s true, translation may be mucking things up), or endless Ikea descriptions, it yanks me out of the story. It ceases to be an escape, or pleasure reading, for me. That said, I think Lisbeth is a compelling character, and it’s evident that she’s a large part to why people like the books….

    But, man, when she got rid of her neck tat and got her boobs done, I was really bummed. I mean, come on, Lisbeth, keep it real!?!

  36. Oh cry me a bloody river.

    You know, critics are more reactionary when it comes to books and movies than any other art-forms.

    There’s a goddamned painting that’s essentially a giant white canvas with a black line in the middle in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was staring at it the other week. Yes, that’s right, a white canvas with a black line through the middle.

    Why aren’t the critics lining up to call us all philistines for enjoying white canvases with black lines through them?
    But for a book (!) oh, once a book gets popular enough, that’s when the tears of rage begin to roll, and I can almost feel the author grinning, “Problem?”

    My point is, and I do have a salient point here: books are popular for a reason. Rarely is it pure marketing.
    For the Millennium Trilogy, it’s characterization. People loved Lisbeth. They adored her. She’s a viciously independent, petite genius; brave, and writhing with social ineptitude.

    When was the last time that a mystery-thriller, a product of the single most popular fiction genre in the history of all time, produced a character more in sync with an emergent sub-culture?

    True, it wasn’t done that well, and there’s much to be desired of the narrative stylistically, although it is a translation. But seriously, Lisbeth was characterized wonderfully, and that’s the bottom line.

    Now if some two-pence critic wants to complain about the shortcomings of another international bestseller that falls short of the capacity for human literary achievement, great!

    But don’t act like it’s interesting news.

    What makes millions of people worship one book over another: that’s news; the rest is obvious.

  37. Thank you, Janet Potter, for demolishing these awful books. I read the first one recently and can offer no really good excuse for having gotten that far except that I was brushing up my Swedish. I have been telling anybody who will listen to avoid these ugly bricks. Without being able to put my finger on what the link might be, I had tended to suspect there was some link between the late Mr Larsson’s technical ineptitude as a storyteller and his moral obtuseness about his characters and the world he lives in. This review, and specifically the last sentence, helped me see what the link is: the author’s self-satisfied self-indulgence is precisely the attitude of masturbatory fan fiction.

  38. There does seem to be a trend in world literature, that primarily middling authors get translated and become popular in other countries. I’ve had Spanish-speaking friends tell me they think Isabelle Allende is perfectly awful, and Japanese friends tell me they can’t stand Haruki Murakami. On the other hand, there are exceptions.

    Is the quality of these books something special? No, probably not. They’re decent (and exciting) crime fiction. And probably (in comparison to top-notch crime fiction) not at the top. One comment above likened them to hamburger in comparison to filet mignon. I would say rather Doritos or perhaps McDonald’s french fries. They are junk food reading.

    But are they fun to read? You bet! I read volume two in about two days.

    Did I know it was junk food? Yes. Did I enjoy it anyway? Yes.

    So I’m basically on the same page as this author, except that I don’t really share her outrage. It’s just a pop bestseller. So what…?

    The one thing I found distinctively odd in her review, however, was her hostility towards the character of Kalle F**king Bloomqvist.

    What’s going on there, I couldn’t say. Clearly she finds it improbable that he is attractive to the opposite sex, and well-nigh offensive that this fact is paid attention to in the book. She seems to regard it as Stieg stroking his own … ego?

    But she doesn’t seem to have really spent that much time in Europe. It strikes me that this sort of character is quite common in the cities of Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. And, yes, in these cities, based on my limited experience, the women are quite strong, too.

    One odd thing I noticed whilst living in Germany was that the women were quite strong, independent, and confident, I would say (no offense intended) more so in some ways than American women (and this despite the fact that, in terms of representation in the workplace — at least the workplace I was able to observe, at the University — they have not yet broken some of the barriers down that women in American seem to have done). But they are strong and independent nevertheless.

    But it strikes me that this review really didn’t want all that, and was hostile to (and, it seems to me, misinterpreted that character of) Kalle Bloomqvist.

    The fact of the matter is, the women are strong, and Kalle doesn’t always rescue them. Usually, he is one step behind. But it is Salander who gets herself out of most of her own scrapes, e.g., fighting her monster half-brother, and capturing him, and arranging for his murder by the motorcycle gang. And it is Salander who rescues Mikael in vol. 1.

    So I think it’s rather a bit of a distortion to say he is always rescuing them. And this distortion, it seems to me, comes from the reviewer’s hostility to the character, who she clearly doesn’t like.

    It’s almost as if, instead of entitling this review:

    “Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus”

    instead the review should have been entitled:

    “Women Who Aren’t Very Fond of Certain Types of Men”

  39. A wonderful, precise analysis. Everyone I knew was raving….I tried, really. But I couldn’t begin to express why I thought this book (1st one, never made it to 2 and 3) was just awful.

    Quite gratifying to know that I’m not the only one who thought it was all a boring waste of time. And don’t even get met started on the “film.”

  40. I’m always amused when people counter a negative review of a popular book by figuratively sticking out their tongue and saying “Well, it’s a best-seller so nyah, nyah on you.”

    Best-sellers tend to be self-perpetuating. If a book is raved over by a vocal minority while those who dislike it remain silent, chances are its sales will gather momentum. It’s why I’ve become increasingly reluctant to read much-touted books–so far, I’ve been disappointed more often than not.

    I never even noticed the issues Ms. Potter lists. What put me off was the initial premise in DRAGON TATTOO, that an alleged professional journalist who had spent most of his career condemning his colleagues for failing to question or challenge major corporations proceeds to publish an expose based on no verified evidence beyond hearsay.

    Can you say “plot device,” boys and girls? I knew you could.

    That’s what turned me off–the constant contriving of plot twists that were blatantly just that, and then their being resolved by some serendipitous intervention of fate or Lizbeth Salander.

    Reading through the comments of those who defend the series, it’s fairly clear what the attraction is. Lizbeth Salander is the vigilante in all of us, applying personal justice where the usual kind doesn’t work. She’s from the same archetype as Robin Hood—the outlaw whose fight is against the forces of oppression and injustice.

  41. If you’d stuck to the book’s writing, I’d have an easier time letting your point go. However, I think the popularity of the book series and your easy, trite critique fails to give the books series it’s due. Potter omits contradicting evidence to a critique that’s more about the book series pervasive motif, the objectification of women, and makes really disingenuous points. Also, it misrepresents the books take on the matter. Since she’s so fond of saying, ‘all’ the characters do ‘x, y, and z,’ you need only look at a few examples to dismiss this critique as unfair. For instance, when you describe Blomkvist as a hero saving the damsel in distress and bedding women, that’s really far off the mark. Spoiler: Blomkvist is almost hung to death by a serial rapist and Salander saves him. She hits Martin Vanger with a golf club, and then as he attempts to flee, chases him down on a motorcycle. Also, the Salander seduces Blomkvist and we are told directly that she hates when people try to paint her as the victim. Your absolutist take on the book series contains too many blanket statements to stand as a credible critique.

  42. I myself only read the first one of the series (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and did not understand what people liked about the books!. I am a very liberal girl and have no problem with sex but I found his books to be very vulgar and unnecessarily so. I cannot believe that millions of people bought a book that has a plot based around such horrible and descriptive rape/murder scenes. Not to mention the fact that child molestation/rape seems to be a VERY popular topic for authors and I personally think that thats f-ing disgusting.

  43. I cannot believe that millions of people bought a book that has a plot based around such horrible and descriptive rape/murder scenes.

    Note to Leah: do not ever bother with reading Thomas Harris.

  44. I can see why this entry is under the “essays” heading rather than “Book and Review” because this is clearly not a critique of the works but an attack on the author. So Potter doesn’t like Stieg Larsson, okay, that’s fine. The bits I’ve read about the man make him sound like someone I wouldn’t want to spend much time with either.

    “my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.” So basically Potter is upset not with the books on their own merit but because she thinks Larsson was self-centered? These books are contemptible not because of the story or plot but because they were written by novice mystery writer who may (or may not) have used fiction to live out some sort of fantasy?

    Posthumous character assassinations aside, this essay struck me as yet another potshot at a bestselling series. It’s also a bit of a cheapshot in that since the author planned on several more books but died before he could write them. He may have matured as a mystery author but we’ll never know.

    A more accurate title for this essay would have been “Bloggers Who Hate Authors On the Wild Assumption the Male Protagonist Is Being Used for Wish Fulfillment.” But that’s sort of long title and folk are unlikely to click the link.

  45. Well, I listened to the trilogy and loved it. The “boring details” helped me get into the world of the novels and created a sense of presence. I recall Dan Brown came in for a roasting for not meeting literary standards as well, as did JKR for the Harry Potter series. Trash, prol fodder, illiterate. Maybe being popular doesn’t meet the literary gold standard for professors and writers of a lesser god, but for millions of readers all over the globe, it was worth the money. And if you didn’t like it, well, fine. Who is the judge of what is “good writing” anyway? I’ll be my own judge, thank you. And I loved the series. Maybe these critiques will help polish that novel we’ve all been working on or the next one to be published. But I doubt it.

  46. Something you seem to missin your analysis: your American perspective on the story. I agree with Jay at 6:03PM that you are mostly launching an ad hominem attack, not a real book critique.

    This is a story about Swedes in Sweden. With small detours into the Eastern Europe and Gibralter, it stays in Sweden. The books, and the characters have a perspective on life which is at least Scandinavian, and more accurately Swedish. The idea that Mikael would “bed” any swedish women is a bit silly. Not all are independant, but if you better understood Swedish females you would retract your opinion. In the story Lizbeth chooses Mikael, and the “crackling” ex changes fit perfectly with the understated, contemplative nature of Swedes. Not all are fit, but as a generalization they are more sexually self-confident and self-aware then most other groups of women on the planet. And correspondingly, Swedish men are as well. Americans, I am sorry to say, are not.

    You obviously are missing the original Swedish version, for which you can’t be faulted. But you are obviously critisizing something which is outside your understanding. Yes, you might say it doesn’t fit the American notion of pulp fiction, or if you were being generous you might say the notion of fiction writing. I would tell you that this series is so popular in Sweden precisely because it highlights both the positives and negatives of their culture.

  47. I’m a native Swede, and I have read the series in Swedish and English, and have seen the Swedish movies. Some of the story is lost in translation, and some of dialogue/actions/reactions/nuances are very Swedish. There are many cultural differences between Swedes and Americans, with the most pronounced difference being a silent stoicism that is just part of Swedish life.

    Anyway, I loved getting totally wrapped up with the entire series!

  48. I want to commend everyone who jumped to Larsson’s defense, particularly those (most of you) whose argument was “it’s popular fiction, so don’t say anything bad about it.” Special thanks to the ones who attacked the critic for being a critic. I sincerely hope you’ll now consider Googling some sites criticizing the movie version of “Eat Pray Love” and continue your hard work. God bless.

  49. A- try reading it in Swedish. The translation is definitely oversimplified, and clearly this reviewer is tackling the psycho-socio precepts as incongruent with English-speaking ideals in fiction. Many in the Scandinavian world find American and British authors disjointed, overly dramatic and inexplicable in their rigidity. Like wise, the author of this article is stuck in the framework of the familiar, and finds these “flaws” rather than questioning the reasoning behind the stylistic choices. Lame.

  50. A writer models the main character after–gasp!–himself. A journalist moonlighting as a fiction writer, writes in the style of–get this!–a journalist. A crusader for women’s rights portrays men as–wait for it–pigs. A Swede, born, raised, and deceased in Sweden writes about–lordy!–Swedes, and the characters all act in a manner suspiciously similar to–ohmygod!–Swedish mores. A fan of genre fiction, who never claimed he was writing the next Moby Dick, writes something exactly like–drum roll please–genre fiction. Remind me to not waste my time reading this incisive criticism on The Millions.

  51. “Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.”

    Since you base a lot of your critique on this point, can’t you be bothered to look up wikipedia, or is this too much of investigative journalism for your taste?

  52. Well… it’s probably a lot better in it’s mother tongue. I didn’t think it was great, but I didn’t think it was terrible. Not the worst books in the world, but I’d say they beat out most of what passes for pop-fiction these days.

  53. Thank you!! I was wondering if anyone else noticed that Mikael is essentially a Mary Sue/Gary Stu for Larsson (who, of course, like a true mary sue, gets all the chicks/men s/he wants). It’s nice to finally read a review that spells out all of the things that were so problematic with this series. As long as this one man doesn’t hate women, it’s okay to detail their abuse and rape in loving detail and to have your fictional stand-in sex them all up…and save the day. How can we talk about Lisbeth being a hero(ine) when she’s saved by Larsson’s Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Some heroine!!

  54. “When was the last time that a mystery-thriller, a product of the single most popular fiction genre in the history of all time, produced a character more in sync with an emergent sub-culture?”

    Laurell K. Hamilton, Goths. Who were at least as emergent, in 1993, as punky cyberexperts in 2005, being a mere 10 years out of date.

    Thank you for this review.

  55. These days we can get a heartbreaking romance, rush of adrenalin or genuinely funny moment from a 30 second youtube clip. It’s not surprising that the old style of writing, where nothing happens until six chapters in, fails to hold anyone’s attention.

    I put down Dragon Tattoo about a third of the way in when a neighbor visited Mikael with a spongecake. I think I got distracted by a photo of an ape cradling a puppy or something. Sorry Larsson.

  56. “(M)y problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.”

    So, to be consistent with this standard, you have problems with 95% of all fiction ever written, yes?

    Talk about a distinction without a difference…

  57. “An investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer.”

    And it’s an odd creed that’s only been in the language for about 50 years or so. It’s very likely to be as transitory and subject to the whims of fashion as the “Three Unities.”

    The word is “storytelling,” and not “storyshowing,” for a reason.

  58. Boy that was close. Here I had myself convinced I had read the most captivating series of books in years. I honestly thought I had enjoyed the stories. Thank God I’ve been showed the way out of my clouded thinking. And thank you all so much, resentful ones, for shaking me from my delusion. I’ll meditate tonight on how awful the books truly are, you jealous, pompous, self-righteous idiots. I feel full of expletives but I’ll stop there before I get too repetitive. But I’ll warrant that those of you who wrote the most bitter words here against this author, who touched millions, couldn’t write yourselves out of a paper bag.

  59. I agree with every word of the review. “Tattoo” is an extremely clunky novel. Escapist fiction is great stuff. I don’t need a beach novel to illuminate the human condition for me, but I do appreciate an author who learns his craft well enough to get us engaged in characters and plots without intruding his self-absorption into nearly every paragraph. Larsson is both smug and humorless.

    “Mary Sue” books work only if the particular Mary Sue is so appealing as to make the reader overlook the bad writing. I guess this Mary Sue wasn’t on my wavelength, because the bad writing kept breaking the spell and making me roll my eyes.

  60. Boy, am I ever embarrassed. Here I thought I was fascinated by the differences between living in Sweden to living in the U.S., written by someone who is not trying to accommodate a U.S. audience. I was even blown away by a not so perfect heroine and hero who were successful in achieving goals that seemed to be unobtainable.

    I started out not particularly liking either character and ended up admiring both even when they were so different. Neither of them accepted the false labels that someone else pinned on them. Perhaps it is possible to avoid being destroyed by the power and influence of others.

    I even loved the descriptions of the apartments, houses and especially the cabin. Austerity in the face of such wealth never seemed so appealing or so reasonable. The opulent apartment Salander creates with her new wealth seems to represent all the things she was denied and in the end means little to her except as a setting for a person she might have been. The apartment needed her Goth friend to be real. I was ecstatic when Salander moved her in even if it was to cover her own identity.

    I guess I should thank all of you for your insights but to tell you the truth, I am too baffled by your comments and grateful that I can ignore them if I choose. I will reread the Larsson books more than once simply because they are so different from the pulp and pap that seem to be so prevalent in the bookstores. I am sorry there will be no more Larsson books.

  61. Did we read the same books, Janet? Some of your remarks are very accurate – about the sharp division of the world between good and bad guys – but as a whole the books are a masterpiece, no less – without any connection to their being bestsellers.
    I read the second book through one weekend: it rarely happened to me that I “can’t put the book aside”. And they are full of insights about journalism, security organizations and more.

  62. The Millenium trilogy is simply overrated. It is actually badly written and main characters are more some kind of stereotypes than real people. There are so many better Scandinavian thrillers written by Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankel or Lisa Marklund. Only readers who usually don’t read crime novels can be charmed by Larsson.

  63. I have stumbled on this post while reading a movie review on The Haffington Post. I was curious as to who would write such thing. How was it possible to miss all the colour during bleak Swedish winter? I rate Stieg Larsson’s trilogy along Robert Ludlum’s books, both highly intelligent writers. It’s kind of shocking and surreal to read some extreme opinions expressed. So diverse is your country (USA) today, so polarized that, I ponder, if some, like the author of the blog, channel their unrecognized anger in absurd ways like telling millions who found books brilliant and resonating that they are wrong. To another poster: I have read Mankel and I like his Kurt Wallander series – reminds me Porphyry Rostnikov books by Stuart Kaminsky – but IMHO he is nowhere near Larsson’s writing that captivates you and sheds light on the Swedish society today. I have close friends in Stockholm, my in-laws lived there after the war. Larsson gives me a different prospective and an even greater admiration of Swedish people, their quiet stoicism. Perhaps it’s a role model society for the USA – Sweden is a country dealing with issues on a much higher level of civility. Their hockey players have more class than some American politicians. Cheers.

  64. I didn’t read the books, but I did see the first two movies (kind of lost interest after the second one). But the biggest red flag for me with the story was when Lisbeth sleeps with Blomqvist. I can’t imagine that a young woman with Asperger’s who lives on the fringes of society, courts bad-ass women, rides a motorcycle and wears tattoos, would ever consent to going to bed with an aging, frumpy, unremarkable (male) journalist. I guess opposites attract? But I would agree with the OP that it’s kind of a conflict of interest / masturbational fantasy for him to be patting himself on the back in the Respect for Women league and then turning around and having the woman actually jump the guy’s bones. (esp after reading things saying it was inspired by his desire to help rape victims? why would you sleep with your character who represents rape victims? why do you even have to go there?)

    I can def see how it’s part of a noir thing for the central male character to sleep with the femme fatalle. I totally get that. But mixing that with the message of “I love and respect women!” comes off as a little bit creepy. Just saying.

  65. I have seldom read such a passel of vituperation about books which, as a few of you were smart enough to realize, were not written for any market but Sweden, and in fact were written for fun and relaxation by Stieg after a full day’s work on his muckraking magazine. The guy just didn’t sleep much.

    But I must educate those of you who claim that the translator must be to blame for anything you didn’t like in the books. Many people are involved in shepherding a foreign novel into English. In this case, 1) his editor at Norstedts in Stockholm; 2) Stieg himself, who worked with her on the editing of the first book; 3) myself, a translator who has been doing this from most of the Germanic languages for over 35 years; 4) the editor at Quercus in London, who was savvy enough to buy the world English-language rights, and who also thought up the English titles of books 1 and 3 based on book 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to construct a series; and 5) the editor at Knopf who started with the UK-edited version of my originally American translation and did some more editing for the U.S. market. Plus the usual bevy of copyeditors and proofreaders in all three locales.

    My job as a translator is to reproduce as closely as possible the author’s style and intent. It is not to rewrite the book as if an American had written it. In this case, since U.S. publishers were too slow off the dime to snap up the rights to this excellent series, the UK editor did his rewrites and approved them with the Swedish editor. Due to a scheduling snafu I was not given time to rebut the changes, so I removed my own name from the books and used the pseudonym “Reg Keeland,” not being willing to take the rap for the many infelicities that were introduced. So please don’t automatically blame the translator when there’s something that offends your standards of taste in high literature or popular potboilers. It takes many cooks to spoil the broth. In this case, however, Stieg’s story comes through as a gripping read. Over 15 million fans can’t be wrong.

    If you don’t read both the original language and English, please think twice before blaming a translator in the future. We in the profession would certainly welcome the quashing of this knee-jerk reaction.

  66. I mostly agree with the review, these books are just not very good. Not the worst things published or anything, but they are just boring and ridiculous in the end. I actually started reading them because I had just finished “Let the Right One In” and I was thinking, “There must be a lot of awesome Swedish literature I’ve missed if it’s anything like this!” Not so. I’m halfway through the second book and I keep falling asleep reading it.. I’m done with the series, I think, I only plowed ahead this far because of the inexplicable popularity of these titles (I thought it would eventually be gripping and awesome, and maybe I was just stupid… I might be, but I don’t think I’m wrong about these books being bad.)

    I think what bothers me most (besides the plodding pace) is the techno-magic (as well as the endless product placement and tech specs.) What I read so far has made most problems solvable by computer magic – the books try to take place in the real world, but computers can solve every problem, somehow (magical access link to everything! steal billions without a trace!)

    As far as the characters go, I thought that Blomkvist was sort of flat and weird before I knew anything about the author self-insertion business. (Actually, I think this is where the review above gets a little too mean-spirited, as author self-insertion/ idealization is nothing new – though it’s not effective here, I’d prefer to judge the character over the author.) Also, I didn’t think Lisbeth was really unique, more like some nerd-fantasy problem-solving sex-bot whose eccentricities made her unapproachable. Some of her portions were interesting, but she’s more a shut-in’s dream girl than a person.

    I don’t (ever, really) post lengthy screeds about what I don’t like, but I felt personally bamboozled and scammed by these books (1 1/2 books, maybe) because they are so popular (top ten on Kindle, which lead me to buy them) and they are so banal in the end.

    I just don’t get it the appeal here.

  67. Although the Millennium Trilogy has its faults, it’s also extremely fun to read. I read the 2,000 pages or so in the French edition over a few days. Yes, some of it was annoying, and some of it wasn’t that well written, but ultimately I enjoyed it.

  68. thank God – I thought I was going nuts there for a while, reading nothing but praise for this drivel.

    Perhaps because it’s ‘foreign’ is why this series was successfully marketed to a wider audience in the US. Based on the praise/hype, I honestly expected something meaningful and worthwhile when I picked it up. The power of marketing, eh?

  69. I read the first book in the trilogy while on a trip to Norway. I am the sort of person who thinks that the spare writing of JM Coetzee is something to aspire to. However, I enjoyed the book (read: very readable on a trip, although I must say, I first read JM Coetzee on a plane trip).
    I thought the inclusion of detail about running a magazine and tech specs–as well as the inclusion of an actual website address strange (as well as “dating” the stories more quickly), and the mutual acceptance of the protagonist’s lovers laughable (or is it a Swedish thing? What do I know? I just visited Norway). After learning that the writer had passed away before publication, I wondered if he just never got around to editing?
    I am really glad that I read the post by the woman, Celia H. with Asperger’s, who enjoyed the detail. I think it provided the most interesting insight into the writer’s style of any of the comments. Thank you, Celia, for your post. It made reading through the previous comments worth it.
    Despite its style and content flaws, I found the book enjoyable. I do recommend, as an alternative, the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, whose protagonist Detective Hole is a much more sympathetic character, and the writing and story better.

  70. I am so glad I have stumbled upon this article. I read the first two books but could not make myself slog thru the third one. They were both so desperately in need of a good editor. And poor Lisbeth she is a truly an original character – but he seemed unable to completely develop her. So the author continued to give her more talents and skills until she almost had super powers. And lastly the female characters may have been strong women – but it was interesting that they were willing to share Mikael because of sexual prowess……It makes me crazy that so many critics have failed to point out the obvious issues with the writing of thee books.

  71. I just stumbled across this by Googling “millennium trilogy worst books ever.” I despised the first one, but was sucked into trying the second one by a coworker who insisted “Oh, the second two are SO much better.” I kinda want to catch her on fire now. (Just a little bit. Like from the knees down.)

    The two main characters are annoying, unlikable, self-righteous douchebags. The telling vs. showing is so freaking annoying and makes for such boring reading that before I quite reading I was starting to get an almost uncontrollable urge to stab myself in the ocular socket and pop out my eyes with one of those little plastic sporks from Chik-Fil-A.

    It irritates the crap out of me that Larsson and that other “Most Overrated Writer of the Century” nominee, Stephanie Meyer, have sold umpteen quadrillions of books between them while there are so many original, talented writers out there (myself not included – I suck, as well) who feel great when they sell 3 books in a month.

    To quote the great Dorothy Parker: “This [book] wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

  72. “Why do we constantly reward excruciating writing with bestseller status?”

    So wrote Shannon Turlington.

    The answer is that ‘we’ do not. The popularity of products released and distributed throughout most ‘Western’ countries is determined corporatistically and nepotistically, in advance, by people that work for the label companies and major publishing houses, of course.

    THAT is the first reason why the vast majority of ‘charted’ output (in literature, music, cinema, etc) is utter dross.

    The second reason concerns not reward, but lack of complaint. People gleefully accept this situation, and slip a copy of the latest J K Rowling into their travel bag…despite the prose being about the same level as an 11-yr old non-native speaker – and this only points us to another question – why are so many people dumbed-down?

    The big picture of the controlled society then begins to emerge, and people don’t like to face the truth, so they turn around and go back to their John Grisham and Cormac McCarthy.

    To return to the works in question, what I personally find most interesting is that the aforementioned publishing magnates allowed a series of novels through the net that deal with events that resemble the Dutroux affair and other horrific real-life examples of psychopaths in high places having their crimes hidden.

  73. To the people who have a problem with negative reviews, I have a simple question: why? Every review consists of an opinion, whether it’s for a film, a CD, or in this case, a book. Are we to expect that every opinion of every single film, CD or book is going to be positive? Varying opinions call for varying views.

    “And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”

    Just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said at all. In that case, why bother posting any review, positive or negative?

    “Those that can do. Those that can’t, now tear up those that can in petty little blog entries.”

    “Can the naysayers please refer us to the bestselling books they’ve written. I’d love to read them.”

    So, both of you are inferring that in order to criticise one medium, you have to be an expert at it yourself. Why do we have critics at all, then? I guarantee you that most critics do not have any prior experience in whatever field they’re reviewing. Film critics aren’t former directors or actors, nor are music reviewers former musicians. I can also tell you that if this was a positive review, you wouldn’t be questioning whether the person in question had written a bestseller.

    I’m not about to accuse society of having been ‘dumbed-down’ over the years, because believe it or not, that term gets tossed around all too often, and the people who use it don’t even realise that ‘dumbed’ or ‘dumbing’ are not real words, and therefore that process does not exist. Instead, I’m going to leave you with this to ponder: if we don’t live in a critical world, how can we ever expect anything to improve?

  74. Brilliant review, spot on with all points. What’s more, you have much thicker skin than I do. I got to page 113 of the first book and promptly threw it across the room, where it still sits in a corner at this very moment (that was 7 months ago). I might have read the whole thing had my wife not beaten me to it and warned me of how dismal it was.

    I don’t care what I’m reading, it shouldn’t take over 100 pages to get to a plot, especially when the author spends a liberal quantity of time parsing over trivial details which never amount to anything.

  75. Dear L,

    I take issue with your rejection of ‘dumbing down’, both linguistically, and what it means.

    FIrst of all, I am in good company using the phrase, including Robert Winston. Whatever authority you might refer to in order to say that the phrase does not exist, is not an authority.

    Secondly, even if the phrase was invalid, the process most certainly is taking place. I offer you the following link as a starting point for your future research.

  76. Have you even read the swedish originals of these books? How can you even think of criticizing someones words when you have only read a translation of them?

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