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Stieg Larsson — the Japanese, French & original (!) — decoded
Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson is dead. Long live Stieg Larsson!

Last month, The Times, London, anointed French writer Pierre Lemaitre “the new Stieg Larsson” for Alex, his first thriller to be translated into English.

But that’s nothing new. Last year, The Times had declared Keigo Higashino the “Japanese Stieg Larsson” for The Devotion of Suspect X, a 2005 novel that was translated into English only in 2012.

The original Stieg Larsson was, of course, the Swedish journalist who took English crime fiction by storm with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2005. In 2009 came Book 2 in his Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. By the time The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was published in 2010, Larsson was quite a literary phenomenon.

t2 takes stock of the growing Larsson library.

THE PLOTS

Stieg Larsson: Though split into three fat books, this is essentially one long story revolving around Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. She’s a super-hacker and loner, he’s a bull-headed journalist and seducer. Things start easy — Blomkvist and Salander have to solve the disappearance of an ageing businessman’s niece. Then they team up to take down a corrupt tycoon. But soon the bodies start piling up and the plot widens to include rape, prostitution, Sweden’s security police, Cold War espionage and a bullet in Salander’s brain.

There’s violence, cruelty, blood and brutality. We cringe but we can’t put the books down. There’s way too much detail at times and long-winding backstories, but the Millennium Trilogy is a one-sitting read — if there were that many hours in a day!

Keigo Higashino: Two of his books in the Detective Galileo series have been translated into English. The Devotion of Suspect X is delicious in its simplicity. A man is killed and you know the killer. The cops know too. But Detective Kusanagi and his physicist friend Manabu Yukawa are outwitted at every step by a math professor. There’s a lot of dull routine policework that Kusanagi thrusts upon the reader but the novel redeems itself in the end.

Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint opens simple too. A rich businessman dies in his living room soon after he tells his “saintly” wife he is leaving her for a younger woman. You know it’s the wife but as the story unfolds, you begin to doubt yourself. Could it be the mistress? But while Suspect X ended with a revelation that blew our mind and possibly earned Higashino the “Stieg Larsson” epithet, Salvation’s ending falls flat.

The Kusanagi-Yukawa duo are expected to return but if Higashino puts us through another stupid, improbable climax, we’ll take the moniker back!

Pierre Lemaitre: Alex, by French writer Pierre Lemaitre, is the crime thriller of the season. A young beautiful woman named Alex is kidnapped on her way home. As you try to understand why and by whom and Commandant Camille Verhoeven races against time to find her, the story turns on its head. And every time you feel you’re on a bit of firm ground, Lemaitre snatches the plot from under your feet, till you just give up and resolve to stay awake the whole night because by now you just have to know!

Alex is not for the faint-hearted. Hungry rats on bleeding skin, acid melting away body parts, a screwdriver through the eye socket — Lemaitre doesn’t hold back. But the story leads to a smart and satisfying end and we are looking forward to the next Commandant Verhoeven mystery.

Calcutta bookstores are yet to stock Alex. May we request them to please get going? Till such time, the e-book is available on Amazon and the imported edition on Flipkart.

THE MEN

Michael Blomkvist: He’s irresponsible, moody, selfish and a womaniser but we love Blomkvist — for his guts, his commitment to his cause, his fierce loyalty towards his friends and because women always seem to want to take him to bed... or to the shower!

And when Daniel Craig slipped into his shoes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist just became irresistible! Sadly, the film didn’t release in India.

Shunpei Kusanagi: He’s a solid old-school cop, doesn’t make much of an impression in The Devotion of Suspect X. In Salvation…, he very cutely falls for the prime suspect and even waters her flowers every time he visits the crime scene.

Manabu Yukawa: This physics professor, known as Detective Galileo in the police force because of his penchant for solving complicated cases, is as pompous as he is knowledgeable. His witty repartees keep us engaged in the boring bits.

Camille Verhoeven: Pierre Lemaitre has etched his cop with care. Commandant Verhoeven is defined by two tragedies — his stunted height (4’ 11”) caused by his mother’s smoking while she was pregnant, and the death of his wife in a kidnapping incident. Our heart goes out to the commandant as he struggles to keep his emotions from derailing the investigation into Alex’s kidnapping. And we love how he uses his short stature to his advantage by evoking sympathy in his suspects and making them reveal more than they intended.

THE WOMEN

Lisbeth Salander: We haven’t met anyone like her. Though painfully thin, she can throw punches to take down grown men. Completely at home in Hacker Republic but a disaster in social settings, she’s been a victim since childhood but self-pity is a path Salander won’t take. She fights back every time and with spectacular results. Remember her creativity on Advokat Bjurman’s abdomen? And we love how she gets new breasts the moment she comes into money. We could go on and on about this tattooed and pierced computer whiz… as you can see, Lisbeth Salander is our hero.

PS: Though Rooney Mara did fine as Lisbeth in the English movie, Noomi Rapace was so much better in the Swedish version.

Erika Berger: The editor-in-chief of Millennium magazine freaks us out a bit. Erika loves her husband and can’t think of life without him. But she also needs to sleep with her best friend, Blomkvist, which she does with her husband’s blessings. We admire her honesty but also her clear-headed editorship of the magazine and her loyalty to her friends and colleagues.

ex: It’s difficult to describe this 30-year-old ravishing beauty with a weakness for wigs. One moment you are worried sick for her safety, a few pages on, you start hating her. Finally you make your peace with her. Yes, she’s a fighter too, but Alex will never be Lisbeth.

If a film is made, and Alex is an eminently filmable novel, we pick Kate Winslet to play the lead. She’s stunning, she can be tough as nails when required and she looks great even in weird wigs, remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

THE CHEMISTRY

Mikael-Lisbeth: Their crackling chemistry is what makes this trilogy special. They start off as unwilling partners on a case — she spies on him, he calls her “Sally” just to infuriate her but they are a rock-solid team. Their first encounter in bed is so matter-of-fact that you gasp and, er, scream for more. When they stay together in Blomkvist’s Sandhamn cabin, you root for their relationship. And then Stieg Larsson does the cruellest thing — he keeps them apart till you fume in frustration.

Mikael-Erika: They have been best friends for 20 years, they run Millennium together, they have other lovers but they have this insatiable need for each other’s body. Weird, but wow! Also, they call each other Micke and Rickey. Cute.

Kusanagi-Yukawa: There’s really no man-woman chemistry, though there are quite a few love stories in the two books. But we must mention the quips and quibbles of the detective and the physicist. They were in college together and the ribbing and rivalry continue. Kusanagi loathes asking for the smartass professor’s help, Yukawa loves getting involved in cop cases but makes a big show of the “favour” he’s doing.

Verhoeven and his team: Pierre Lemaitre does not let his two principal characters, Alex and Commandant Verhoeven, meet even once. While that took guts, it wasn’t all that surprising because these two would anyway never share any kind of chemistry.

But Lemaitre devotes much attention on Verhoeven’s core team and their quirks, which adds to the novel’s charm.