Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. The writing is often dry and lacks that certain flair I’ve become accustomed to with my crime stories. I’m not sure if that is due to the authors themselves or the translators who morph the native tongue into English for consumption across the pond. But given all the buzz around the new(ish) Hollywood film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I make the “
Hollywood” distinction because all three books have already been made into movies by a Swedish film company), I thought I’d give the Viking mysteries another shot. Plus, the score of the U.S. movie was done by Trent Reznor, and my wife, being a rabid fan of anything he touches, will probably want to see it based on that fact alone. And if that happens I’ll need to be prepared to act properly disdainful of it in comparison to the book (because clearly, if I’ve read the book before seeing the movement I’m vastly superior to the rest of you who haven’t).
The “Girl” novels are collectively known as The Millenium Trilogy, named after the newspaper for which one of the main characters works. It was found in manuscript format after Stieg Larsson’s death and published posthumously. The first in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was originally titled Men Who Hate Women in the manuscript. It perfectly described the book, but I guess the publishers thought a little more ambiguity was in order (given the industry’s propensity to name every freaking book something vague and impersonal like “The ______’s Tale” or “Diary of a ______” or “The Boy That _______ed His Older Sister’s Friend’s Cousin”). And so it was published as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The two main characters are Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (the aforementioned Girl). Blomkvist is a financial investigative journalist, part owner of the fictional financial magazine Millenium (which he owns with his sometimes-lover Erika Berger). He’s a exceedingly fiery and passionate about exposing fraud and malfeasance in the business world, and he’s also something of a ladies’ man in his own lackadaisical way. At the opening of the novel he has been convicted of libel against a Swedish industrial titan named Hans-Erik Venistrom, Millenium is in disarray, and he’s looking forward to a month-long stay in prison. Salander works as a researcher for a Swedish security firm performing background checks and investigations, and she’s something of a misanthrope—oh, she’s a genius alright, but the world at large doesn’t know it. As far as the Swedish government is concerned, she is socially and emotionally stunted, mentally retarded, and incapable of managing her own life (hence why she is a ward of the state). She’s also a hacker, but that doesn’t come out until much later in the book. Her boss gives her an assignment researching Blomkvist for a lawyer who wants to hire him for a job, and after digging through all of his personal business, she issues a favorable report which then results in Blomkvist being offered said job.
That job happens to be writing the family history of another industrial titan named Henrick Vanger, a 80-something family patriarch whose ancestral business has been on a long slide down from its previous glory. Except not really. The Vanger family history is a smokescreen. Henrick really wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet who disappeared without a trace back in the 60s. What happened to Harriet has become Henrick’s obsession. Everyone else in the family wants him to drop it and let the dead rest in peace, but he can’t. Now, an old man and in fading health, he wants to give it one last ditch effort before shuffling off this mortal coil. At first Blomkvist doesn’t want any part of it. He’s a financial investigative reporter; he’s not a crime reporter, and he certainly isn’t a genealogist. But then Vanger dangles the carrot—he has damaging information on Venistrom, and he’ll give that information to Blomkvist at the conclusion of a one-year investigation, whether or not he finds out what happened to Harriet. That seals the deal for Blomkvist, and he agrees.
He moves into a cottage on the northern island on which the Vanger family estate resides and begins the investigation, searching through reams of documentation Henrick has collected over the years and interviewing various family members. The investigation proceeds slowly, but realistically enough, and Blomkvist begins to chip away at the mystery, even turning up some new leads. He manages to deduce that Harriet disappeared because she had knowledge of a serial killer in the family (who exclusively targeted women, which also plays into the manuscript title), and she was going to divulge this knowledge to Henrick on the day she disappeared. That’s when he realizes he’s out of his depth and, through consultation with Henrick’s lawyer, learns of the brilliant young researcher that did the background check upon him. Even though he’s outraged by the intrusion, he hires Salander to help with the investigation, and together they begin to unravel the mystery.
Now, that’s a very condensed version of the plot. If I can say anything for Larsson, it’s that his plots are extremely complicated, and I really can’t do it justice here. If you want to see the entire summary, complete with spoilers, Wikipedia is your friend. Another facet of the story that I didn’t capture is the attention that Larsson pays to the development of his main characters. At times the detail is painstaking—recollections of family and past experiences and opinions on various subjects. In effect, it’s the exact opposite of what any Writing 101 course will tell you to do. “Show, don’t tell,” they say. “Don’t get bogged down in character backgrounds. Keep the story moving.” All good advice, but Larsson shows that rules can be broken in the right situations and have it turn out astoundingly well. The result are some extremely well thought out and deep characters, the most interesting of which is Lisbeth Salander—which you would expect, right? I mean, she’s the titular character, after all.
Therefore, several subplots are intertwined with the investigation. The whole industrial journalism thing plays a significant role, as does Blomkvist’s relationship with Erika Berger, another woman in the Vanger clan, and Salander herself (he’s like flypaper for chicks, that guy). The most important subplot, however, has to do with Salander’s personal life, her status as a ward of the state, and the rape that occurs at the hands of her court-appointed guardian. This was the most intriguing aspect of the book—getting to know Salander’s character, trying to understand her view on the world, and seeing how she deals with certain challenges and antagonists she runs into, such as the aforementioned rape. Like everything else about the girl, her problem resolution tactics are unorthodox but extremely effective. And vicious—oh, so vicious. My wife would love her (Girl power!). Larsson also reverses the typical male/female gender roles when it comes to her and Blomkvist, but I can’t say anything more about that without ruining the plot for you (that is, if you happen to be that rare person—like me, until recently—who hasn’t already read this pop-culture media bomb). In the end, very effective and engaging.
I really enjoyed the book, but as I said before the writing is kind of dry. If the actual language was more artful (again, not sure if it’s Larsson’s fault or the translator’s) I would probably be jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth and howling at the moon for the sheer brilliance. As it stands, I’m merely sated and content. Some readers might be a bit miffed about the story structure, too. After the big climactic scene there’s a 50-70 page dénouement in which all of the other subplots are wrapped up. It’s a bit different than the typical mystery structure these days, but I didn’t mind. One part that really did disappoint me, though, was that the hacking aspect wasn’t explored in more detail. What I do for a living intersects with hacking in a major way (which I guess makes me a double nerd), so I’m always interested in the nuts and bolts of the subject. But alas, Larsson is a journalist by trade, so my hope for a more technical description of the process was a pipe dream. It didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book—really it’s just one of those “wish list” type of things.
Overall I give The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo four out of five stars—highly recommended. And if you’re planning on seeing the movie, it’s even more so. I mean, you want to be one of the cool kids, don’t you?