Recipe for a bestseller: The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Striving to become a better writer, I am going to put some of my favourite masterpieces of popular fiction under a magnifying glass to hopefully learn something from them. I’ll kick off with the phenomenon of Stieg Larsson.

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What makes a book into a runaway success? The Girl Who Played with Fire is a triumph: it grabs you from the word go and holds you tight until the last page. It repeats, possibly surpasses, the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the Millennium trilogy. I expect that the third one will be equally irresistible.

So let’s see what the main ingredients are.

Firstly, there is the utterly mesmerising heroine, Lisbeth Salander. She is a walking contradiction. A damaged and vulnerable woman in the big bad world; a mathematical genius; painfully antisocial; brutally uncompromising, but also highly principled and moral. Immoral… I could go on. She is absorbing. She draws you into her psyche, but only as far and as deep as Larsson allows you to go. And then you hit a brick wall, and you must tunnel your way through to her past, to what makes her tick.

Secondly, all other characters are fleshed out, living and breathing, preoccupied with their own agendas. Their paths cross and intersect; then diverge, only to align again. The narrative perspective shifts between them rapidly, but they are so distinct and so well drawn that you will never get them confused. The relations between them are complex and multi-layered.

Thirdly, the plot is a masterpiece. Seemingly unrelated events feed into each other like tributaries of a violent, unbridled storyline-river. Deeply-seeded secrets are alluded to at first, then slowly teased out of the characters’ past.

Fourthly, the prose flows easily, unobstructed. It is subservient to the plot and characterisation. It never takes the driver’s seat. You don’t feel the burden of reading – instead, you just absorb the story through your skin.

Fifthly, the background knowledge is impressive. You know you’re dealing with an expert. Whether he is taking about computer hacking, weapons or publishing procedures, Larsen knows his stuff.

Lastly, you are on Salander’s side. She has to win. Good has to triumph. The lines between right and wrong are clearly drawn. That’s not to say that Larsen is politically correct in his portrayal of Salander or her methods. All that matters is that your gut instinct tells you that she is damn-right and so you read on, rooting for her to the bitter end.

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The Grand Old Duke of York…

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It was time for crossing the North-South divide and following the grand old Duke of York to the top of that hill. We travelled to York ready for a frosty reception and the War of Roses. But it was a friendly and warm place, and it offered peace to the world on all fronts.

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For a few days we lived in the friendliest little B&B, run by a Viking-type character with red hair, plenty of tattoos and non-nonsense approach to hearty, protein and fats-packed breakfast, bless him! We dined on traditional Yorkist food, slowly becoming full-blooded troopers.

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For some diversity, we lounged in Turkish Baths: a whole evening dedicated to sweating, braising our bodies on full heat and then dipping them in an ice-cold pool. Something akin to making wrought-iron swords of ourselves. There was some hyperventilating on Husband’s part, but he recovered quickly and without grumbling.

On a cultural front, we visited York Theatre Royal to watch Agatha Christie’s murder mystery (nearly wrote mysery!). It was excellent, stylish and true to Miss Marple.

But the most satisfying was just loitering around York and inhaling its atmosphere. We scaled the walls and were nearly swept off them by the gales. We trotted to and fro in the Shambles, searching for ghosts of the past.

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York Cathedral took our breath away. It’s a living form, not a building. It sits on ancient foundations which outdate the Romans, and it rises all the way to heaven. One can just settle down in a pew and soak in the spirits that float there free and unobstructed by the twenty-first century.  Some of them have their heads immortalised in one of the chambers.

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