Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander, and The Millennium Trilogy

One of the year’s most intriguing queer character and strongest feminist storylines were created by a deceased straight man in Sweden — yep, you read that right.

Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who tragically passed away before his books were published, wrote a trilogy of mysteries featuring Lisbeth Salander — one of the best-developed bisexual characters you’ll ever come across. Lisbeth is a pierced, paranoid, tattooed computer genius who harbors a grudge against misogynists, and a passion for a lesbian named Miriam Wu.

Lisbeth, who has been called the best and most original new character in crime fiction, is a singular creation you have to read to believe.

So far, two books in the Millennium trilogy have been published in the U.S. — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire — with the third expected to arrive in the U.K. this October and in the U.S. in May 2010. 

There are so many reasons to read the Millennium trilogy, beginning of course with the quality of the characters, plot and writing. If that’s not enough to move you, consider what else sets the books apart and makes them mandatory reading:

Women don’t need to be saved. They just need to be real.

Like Joss Whedon’s female characters, Lisbeth and the other women in Larsson’s novels are strong, independent, powerful — and so flawed and fully imagined they become utterly believable.

The female characters include an ambitious magazine editor, an internationally successful businesswoman and a Ph.D. candidate who courageously seeks to expose Sweden’s sex traffickers. Miriam, Lisbeth’s on-again, off-again lover, is a particularly compelling and unique character, a strong-willed performance artist and kickboxer who shares Lisbeth’s passion for sex as well as her aversion to relationships.

It is Lisbeth, however, who stands apart. She’s damaged goods — antisocial and sullen, with an abusive past and a long and ever-growing mental list of enemies. She combines Willow’s brains with Buffy’s instincts, and though she’s too slight to win every head-on fight, she makes up for it by being quick, ruthless and painstakingly prepared (the hammer she carries in her shoulder bag helps).

It’s not just Lisbeth, though: all the leading female characters in Larsson’s world refuse to back down from a fight. There’s no pleading for mercy, no damsels in annoying distress.

Violence, death and abuse happen — plenty of each — but Larsson’s women rise back up. They repay. They research dark topics and refuse to be frightened. They kick and bite and punch, and they plot smart business moves without consulting the men around them.

As Whedon has said, we’ll know we’ve arrived when strong female characters no longer jump out at us as exceptions. But until such women become the norm, Lisbeth and crew are a glorious and unexpected deviation from the status quo.

The media still doesn’t get it.

Especially in his second novel, Larsson makes fun of sensationalist and sexist journalism — bad journalism that, ironically, is reflected in some of the real media coverage of the novels.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, when Miriam becomes a suspect in several murders, the Stockholm media latches onto fragments of the story, labeling Miriam “the S&M dyke,” primarily because she appeared in a provocative dance during Gay Pride. The press also jumps on Lisbeth’s and Miriam’s ties to an all-woman rock band called “Evil Fingers,” leading to additional ridiculous (and humorous) speculation that the group was satanic.

In its coverage of the novels, the real media reveals why it still deserves to be made fun of. The Guardian describes Lisbeth as a “pierced, tattooed misfit with violent and bisexual proclivities.” Because, of course, “violent and bisexual” are negative descriptors that somehow belong side by side.

In a book review picked up by The L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, Daniel Mallory makes an even bigger — and ironic — blunder when he writes that Larsson “unfurls a few spry chase sequences and even introduces a lesbian satanic cult.” Indeed, there is no lesbian satanic cult. Larsson’s whole point was that the media made up the cult, based on a couple skewed facts, yet the real media — like its fictional counterpart — can’t resist sensationalizing what it doesn’t understand.