Boyd Tonkin: A Swedish punk tops our charts

The Week In Books

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.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before