No. 10: Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl”

You submit three manuscripts to a publishing house. Within a matter of months, the first book in your trilogy becomes an international best-seller and makes you the No. 2 author across the globe in 2008. Movie deals are made, not only in your home country of Sweden, but also in Hollywood, where a top-notch director adapts your first book in the series. Tour guides base walking tours on your mysteries.

Before book No. 3 can hit American shelves in 2010, inspiring Harry Potter-like hysteria among adults, readers too impatient to wait for the release defy copyright laws to order copies overseas.

Life looks good. Except you’re dead.

That’s the posthumous story of Stieg Larsson, a Swedish magazine editor who died of a heart attack not long after delivering what he called the Millennium Trilogy. In 2010, American fans knew all three books: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

While conspiracists might disagree, Larsson’s death came of natural causes, if you call smoking more than 60 cigarettes a day a natural cause. (A friend claimed to the New York Times that the journalist’s last words were, “I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!”) His life was irresistibly noir-like: Larsson, like his book’s hero, was an investigative journalist who took on far-right extremists. Dying intestate has made a mess of his success, as his long-time live-in girlfriend (an architectural historian), and his allegedly estranged family members fight over millions.

Yes, as critics point out, the books have “endless digressions,” “lumbering prose,” and “preposterous plots.” The books’ true heart lies in the odd coupling of financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and, more importantly, Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant hacker and Asperger-ish researcher in full punk regalia and, of course, tattoos. (Larsson patterned Salander after Pippi Longstocking.)

The crime novels delve into fascism and serial murders, but also Salander’s horrific abuse as a child and Blomkvist’s investigations into financial and political corruption.

That the “Girl” was the more compelling character wasn’t lost in the translations, although only the second novel truly focused on Salander. Larsson fiercely opposed female exploitation after witnessing a gang rape as a teenager, and he insisted on the Swedish titles for his first and third, translated as “Men Who Hate Women” and “The Air Castle That Blew Up.”

The series has been credited with helping establish Scandinavian noir as the current big thing. An outraged sense of justice undergirds all three books — the kind of outrage that seems almost old-fashioned for Americans who live in a disengaged age.

Still, the books’ overseas appeal was pretty clear: The Girl enacts revenge fantasies against sexual abusers, billionaire thieves, and secret-service autocrats. What better outlet for people living through the recent scandals of priest abuse, Wall Street recklessness, and big-government maneuvers? In other words, a catharsis for everyone.

The series has sold more than 45 million copies around the world. By summer, Larsson was the first to make Amazon’s Kindle Million club. In 2010 alone, Larsson sold 15 million copies — as one publishing blogger put it, “roughly the equivalent of recent works by John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and Stephen King combined.”

Movies rights and a TV series were inevitable, and Larsson’s home country got dibs. The first film hit European theaters in winter 2009 and pulled in $100 million before getting to British soil. The U.S., late in the game, crammed the Swedish series into three successive limited releases: March, July, and October.

Hollywood also proved game for its own take on Swedish noir. David Finch, the director behind “Seven” and “Fight Club,” signed on for a big-screen treatment of all three movies; the first comes out in December 2011. Daniel Craig’s Bond qualifications (especially between the sheets) made him plenty eligible for the sexually liberated Blomkvist. The question of who would play Salander became our next breathless obsession. After many contenders (with fans advocating for the original, Noomi Rapace), Rooney Mara landed what is probably the most coveted female role since Bella Swan in “Twilight.”

When Larsson died, he left behind about 200 pages of unpublished writing. While that legacy has been part of the ugly legal fight, his girlfriend of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, says these pages are just a draft, and as long as she owns them, “they will never be published.” But do those pages belong to his fourth book … or even a fifth? The mystery and the obsession linger.

–Vera H-C Chan
An earlier version of this story originally appeared on Yahoo! Buzz Log