Perhaps it takes an all-round crisis for British readers to shed the inward-looking habits of a lifetime. Whatever the reason, something unprecedented has happened in the domestic bestseller lists over this past week. For the first time, so it appears, a novel in translation has roared to the top of the hardback fiction charts. As if that were not outlandish enough, the author will not be surfacing on TV chat shows any time soon. He died four years ago. As the British and eurozone economies sink in more or less the same boat, at least we now share our neighbours' voracious passion for Stieg Larsson.
At his death, aged 50, the Swedish campaigning journalist left the "Millennium" trilogy of barnstorming thrillers: three highly-strung epic mysteries that combine edge-of-the-seat action with searing social critique. A year ago, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won ecstatic praise from British critics and readers. Now its successor, The Girl who Played with Fire (translated by Reg Keeland; Maclehose Press, £16.99), has outsold the likes of Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson.
Once more, the serpentine intrigue turns on an investigation – this time, into sex trafficking in Sweden and the fiends in high places who protect it – mounted by Mikael Blomkvist and his fellow-idealists at Millennium magazine. And, once more, another figure seizes the book by the scruff of its neck and binds the reader in fetters of fascination. With the spiky and sassy Lisbeth Salander – punkish wild child, traumatised survivor of the "care" system, sexual adventurer and computer hacker of genius – Larsson created the most original heroine to emerge in crime fiction for many years.
To the men – both naïve do-gooders and conscienceless thugs – who struggle to keep up with her, Salander is an "an entropic chaos factor"; "a loose hand-grenade". Multiply abused when young by family, carers, "guardians" and shrinks alike, this diva of damage transmutes agony into energy. To her would-be controllers she is "a deeply disturbed and violence-prone individual". Yet she looks in the dazzled eyes of admirers – from her fetish-fancying performance-artist girlfriend to the big-hearted prize fighter who rides to her rescue – more like "some sort of princess". This princess packs a punch. Accused of three murders, she vanishes while Blomkvist strives to clear her name and the tabloids salivate at the notion of a "psychotic lesbian Satanist" on the run. She plots punishment for the traffickers – but finds that the trail of guilt leads shockingly close to home.
Salander, a one-woman vengeance machine aimed at violent misogynists, has such fire and heft in part because Larsson lets her escape every label that criminology, psychology – and the crime writing that feeds on them – devises for maverick females. As a crooked psychiatrist puts it, "no complete diagnosis was ever established for her". The air of sizzling enigma that she leaves in her wake only intensifies as Larsson's galloping prose twists the plot. He is harder-boiled and sharper-tongued than his compatriot Henning Mankell. And his writing often feels like keen-edged steel compared to Mankell's seasoned timber.
One quality does align him with Wallander's begetter. Larsson begins from the assumption that a once-benign welfare state has been corrupted from the top. Here, the traders in terrified Baltic teenagers depend on the connivance of cops, judges and lawyers. The youthful terrors that Salander endured show "the shipwreck that was the state justice system", and "the collapse of the whole social safety net". He writes – or, sadly, he wrote – out of rage at lost values. Yet studies show that Sweden still protects the vulnerable better than its peers – certainly better than Britain. So where are the native stars of crime who might expose the broken parts of this society and convert them into electrifying entertainment? Let's hope, and search, for a home-grown Larsson.
P.S.How many of the President's golden words do UK readers need? At the moment, we can't get enough. During 2008, Canongate's mass-market editions of Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope sold well over half a million copies. The week after next, Penguin is to publish a souvenir hardback of Tuesday's inaugural address. But that speech ended with an unacknowledged borrowing from the great English radical who helped to father two revolutions: Tom Paine from Norfolk (left). Will some canny publisher now ride the Obama wave with re-issues of Rights of Man, Common Sense and the 1776 pamphlet the 44th President cited, The Crisis: "Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet... it"? Not George Washington's words, not Obama's, but Paine's.