Crime fiction with a vengeance

The Swedish title of Part I in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy was “Men Who Hate Women.” Which shows that you can write a huge international bestseller and not know why people would read your book.

Larsson’s U.K. publisher changed the title to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” With his original title, Larsson would’ve been a posthumous hit (he died in 2004 of a heart attack at the age of 50) in Sweden, where he was well-known as a Communist campaigner against racism and the extreme right. But he probably wouldn’t have beaten the rest of the recently popular pack of Nordic crime writers from Henning Mankell to Jo Nesbo.

It’s the title change and its focus on a character who’s both aide to the sleuth and victim of violent crime that made Larsson the second-biggest selling novelist in the world last year, after Khaled “A Thousand Splendid Suns” Hosseini.

All the other Nordic writers focus on the detective, which is after all the traditional route in crime fiction. We’ve bought 40 million Mankell novels to follow Inspector Wallander as he mopes his way to the villain’s doorstep.

You could read Larsson’s book like that, too: Mikael Blomqvist, magazine editor and irresistible ladies man, is commissioned to unravel an old murder mystery on a remote Swedish island. But it’s his assistant, a rape-victim filled with hate for her persecutors (the men who hate women), who’s really the heart of the book.

While Blomqvist is working the island case — a fairly typical “closed room” mystery, similar to the ones in which Agatha Christie’s sleuths used to inform us that “one of the people in this room is the murderer” — Lisbeth Salander is secretly setting up the vigilante vengeance that provides the book’s smooth twist in the tail.

No one reads beyond page 50 for Blomqvist. Just Salander. Which is why the work of a Swedish Communist is now being taken up by Sony Pictures for a Hollywood version probably to be directed by David Fincher (who made “Zodiac”), produced by Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”) and scripted by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for his adaptation of “Schindler’s List”).

So many readers warmed to Salander — the series has sold 27 million copies in 40 countries so far — that all three novels in the series have been made into movies in Sweden already. The first came out in the U.S. this month and the other two will be released in the summer.

USA Today urged viewers not to wait for the Hollywood version, calling the Swedish flick “indelibly great.” (Indelible, like a dragon tattoo, get it?) In an example of praising the atmosphere while half-overlooking a flaw in the central element of the movie, reviewer Claudia Puig wrote: “Though the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael isn't fully developed and a few plot coincidences feel contrived, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo artfully and intelligently fuses a punk sensibility to an epic tale.”

Maybe it’s wise not to wait for Hollywood, if it’s punk sensibility that floats your boat.

Of course, Puig’s quibble is a red alert for likely scriptwriter Zaillian. You have to buy Lisbeth and Mikael, otherwise “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is really a drag.

Let’s go back to the novel.

It’s 554 pages in my U.K. paperback version — the first book of three equally chunky volumes, remember. Much of that is the sort of thing you might read in a campaigning magazine such as Expo, the publication of which Larsson was the editor. It’s written in the chatty simple language that magazine — and, increasingly, thriller — editors like, because it’s direct and lacking in imagery, so you keep turning the pages. You’ll never have to stop and say, “Hey, ‘She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.’ Nice image, Stieg Larsson.”

(You won’t, because that’s Raymond Chandler. “Farewell, My Lovely,” chapter 18.)

That’s no problem for a screenwriter. Hollywood can do its own wisecracks, and other literary imagery is usually dropped before an actor opens his lips.

Zaillian can surely cut most of the lengthy portions of the book which Larsson probably liked best. There are long disquisitions on rape statistics in Sweden and background segments on the local business scene. Take Lisbeth’s repeated rape by her legal guardian. It leads to a page and a half of this:

“Guardianship is a stricter form of control in which the client is relieved of the authority to handle his or her own money or to make decisions regarding various matters.”

There’s more: “Taking away a person’s control of her own life … is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose … For the most part the Guardianship Agency carries out its activities under difficult conditions … Occasionally there are reports that charges have been brought against some trustee or guardian who has…”

If Karl Marx had written “Das Kapital” in the evenings as a thriller, it might’ve had more zip than Larsson’s preachy liberal legalisms. Just so long as Engels had changed the title to “The Guy With the Dialectic Theory.”

Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish movie version boils down to a 152-minute procedural that’s quite televisual in its look. That’s too long for a Hollywood thriller, so Zaillian will have to pare it even more.

So what’s left when you take out the tedium? (Don’t get me wrong, a lot of readers tell me they love the tedious parts of Larsson. They soothe you when you’re sick in bed or trying to take your mind off work at the beach. You forget your troubles, immersed instead in how rotten it is to be a Swedish woman.)

Which returns us to Lisbeth. She drives the narrative and, perhaps because women fall too easily for Mikael, she’s where all the sexual tension lies, too. (The book is big on titillation and the Swedish movie doesn’t skimp on a graphic rape scene.) It’s Lisbeth who’ll take you beyond the statutory confrontation with the villain. She makes the book memorable.

Better hope Hollywood doesn’t change the title.