Cover Story

The Books That Hooked the World

Stieg Larsson's ''Dragon Tattoo'' books have become word-of-mouth literary smashes. Now, Hollywood steps in

During the summer of 2008, movie producer Scott Rudin was hanging out at his house in the Hamptons with his partner, who had recently picked up a Swedish crime novel. ''I knew nothing about it,'' says Rudin, whose long list of credits includes No Country for Old Men and The Hours. ''I said, 'Do you want to get lunch?' He said, 'Yes...in a week. Don't talk to me. Don't bother me. I'm reading!' ''

The book, it turned out, was Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Soon Rudin himself was hooked on the novel and its two sequels, a condition he shares with millions of obsessed Americans. ''I read it, and I read the second and a while later the third,'' he says. ''I absolutely loved them. They're just fantastic stories. I spent about a year and a half trying to get the rights.''

Now Rudin and director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) are in preproduction on the first of three major films for Sony Pictures, which means one of the biggest literary phenomenons in recent history is only going to get bigger. Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (collectively known as the Millennium Trilogy), have sold 40 million copies worldwide. More than 7.2 million copies are in print in the U.S. alone, and the books have spent a combined 10 weeks atop New York Times best-seller lists (Hornet's Nest, which came out here on May 25, debuted at No. 1 on June 4 and is the series' fastest seller). They're available in more than 40 countries and have been translated into Chinese, Czech, Korean, and Russian, among other languages. ''It's been magical,'' says Eva Gedin, the editor who originally acquired the books for Swedish publisher Norstedts. ''I have pinched my arm a lot of times. I still can't really believe it.''

At the center of all three novels are two unusually compelling figures: the antisocial, emotionally damaged computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Together, they battle bad guys, solve mysteries, and uncover deep-rooted institutional corruption. The first novel involves the search for a long-missing girl who disappeared off an isolated island; the follow-ups explore complex conspiracies related to Salander's dark past. ''Lisbeth is an absolutely original creation, and the way the two of them work together is the heart of the book,'' says Sonny Mehta, editor in chief of Knopf, the novels' American publisher. ''She is extraordinary. She's a heroine for our time, in some ways.''

And then there's the series' author, Stieg Larsson, an introverted and quiet man who has entirely missed out on his work's success. Larsson died just months before Dragon Tattoo was published, leaving no will and a messy battle over control of the fortune his novels would soon generate. He never had a clue he was about to turn into the world's most famous new writer.

A lifelong crime-novel fan, Larsson started working on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the early 2000s. It certainly wasn't the most obvious career move: By day, Larsson was a serious antifascist journalist, taking on Swedish neo-Nazis as the editor of a small but influential publication called Expo (which, not surprisingly, closely resembles the books' Millennium magazine). Even so, Larsson committed himself to the project, cranking out three hefty manuscripts in just two years. When he sent the first two off to Norstedts, he hoped to make enough money to retire on with his longtime live-in girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson. ''We could immediately see that they were really good,'' says Gedin. ''You could see he was a full-grown writer. They didn't look like first drafts.'' Norstedts offered him a three-book deal, a rarity for a new author. The publisher had high hopes for the books, although now their expectations seem almost comically humble. ''In Sweden at that time, if you sold 10,000 hardcover that would be fantastic,'' says Gedin. ''The first book, our goal was to sell 20,000.''

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