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by William H. Benson

June 24, 2010

     For fun this summer, I read the first of Stieg Larsson’s three mystery novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In it, Larsson, a Swedish author, tells the story of a missing person, Harriet Vanger, who disappeared in 1966 at the age of sixteen. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, now eighty-two, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who works at the magazine the Millennium, in early January of the year to devote the next twelve months to investigating the disappearance of Harriet, who Henrik is convinced was murdered.

     In October, Blomkvist teams up with a twenty-something computer hacker and a social misfit, a girl covered in tattoos, named Lisbeth Salander. She is “a startling and strangely appealing character, an oddball and something brand new in crime fiction.” Late in the year, this “improbable pair” solve the case in a most sensational way.

     Larsson’s story is gripping, difficult to put aside, an enticing thriller, and perhaps even addictive, and this is mainly, I think, because of how he writes it. I call his literary style—for want of a better phrase—a bicycle ride. He spins a single wheel by focusing upon Mikael Blomkvist, and then after a few paragraphs, he will cut away and spin a second wheel by dwelling on Lisbeth Salander for a few more paragraphs. He switches back and forth between these two characters, spinning each wheel, building suspense.

     Of course, the reader anticipates that moment when the two wheels, the two stories, and the two characters will come together, and once they do, the reader is suddenly on a bicycle soaring down a paved mountain highway, without pedaling.

     The book is long, 644 pages in paperback, but it is a quick read.

     Larsson’s second book, The Girl Who Plays with Fire, and the third, The Girl Who Kicks the Hornets’ Nest, feature the same two characters, written in the same style, but with different mysteries. Larsson actually wrote all three at once, forming a trilogy, but he submitted the three at once to a publisher.

     The motif of the trilogy though is coffee, something that Larsson may not have intended, but he has his characters repeatedly preparing or drinking coffee. It may be a Swedish thing, for I have heard coffee referred to as “Swedish gasoline.”

     Larsson never knew of his sudden stroke of fame and fortune—27 million copies have sold worldwide so far—with his Millennium trilogy because he died in November of 2004 at the age of fifty, presumably of a heart attack. One columnist suggested that he actually died of too much coffee, or of cigarettes, for both of his characters, Blomkvist and Salander, smoke plenty of them.

     Midway through that year when seeking Harriet Vanger, at the time of the summer solstice, Blomkvist gave a passing nod to the Swedish festival at Midsummer, a holiday celebrated across northern Europe, especially in Finland, Latvia, and Sweden. This week, actually on Monday, people across Scandinavia will celebrate Midsummer, when the day is the longest, with dancing, maypoles, music, and bonfires.

     Also, this Tuesday, June 22, is National Columnist’s Day, a day not nearly as widely observed as the Midsummer festival. In 1992, I submitted my first biweekly column, and except for one short break along the way, I have dutifully submitted the same every two weeks since.

     The genres I have touched upon include history, literature, religion, politics, science, biography, sometimes even sports, and now today, a book review. Fortunately, I have worked with editors, publishers, and newspaper owners willing to print my 700-word column, and have had readers willing to read it: always the hope.

     Unlike the breakaway mystery novelist who has minted a new thriller series, such as Larsson’s trilogy, the lowly columnist rarely, if ever, enjoys any fortune or fame, even though writing a thought-provoking and tasteful column is not simple. One esteemed writer began a lengthy letter with an apology, “Please forgive me that this is so long. I did not have the time to write a short letter.” To cut, revise, and excise the unnecessary words, and still deliver the idea is a columnist’s job. Writing is rewriting.

     Larsson filled his three novels with pages of immorality, messed-up lives, drunkenness, murder, savage viciousness, and spectacularly corrupt Swedish businessmen, and politicians, sufficient to sicken and revile even the most jaded, and yet, readers seem eager to soak it all up. They are like the people who arrive after the hurricane or tornado has torn through a town or a farm, eager to stare, photograph, and point at the wreckage.


     Where the columnist cuts words, the novelist stacks them atop each other, to the ceiling. Who dares argue with the flimsily-built success of a novelist like Larsson? Not the columnist. “Never get into a fight with people who buy ink by the barrelful.”