The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson

Cover image

Translator: Reg Keeland
Series: Millennium #1
Publisher: Vintage Crime
Copyright: 2005, 2008
Printing: June 2009
ISBN: 0-307-47347-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 644

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As The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens, Mikael Blomkvist is losing a criminal libel suit in Swedish court. His magazine, Millennium, published his hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism that purported to reveal sketchy arms deals and financial crimes by Hans-Erik Wennerström, a major Swedish businessman. But the underlying evidence didn't hold up, and Blomkvist could offer no real defense at trial. The result is a short prison stint for him (postponed several months into this book) and serious economic danger for Millennium.

Lisbeth Salander is a (very) freelance investigator for Milton Security. Her specialty is research and background checks: remarkably thorough, dispassionate, and comprehensive. She's almost impossible to talk to, tending to meet nearly all questions with stony silence, but Dragan Armansky, the CEO of Milton Security, has taken her partly under his wing. She, and Milton Security, were hired by a lawyer named Dirch Frode to do a comprehensive background check on Mikael Blomkvist, which she and Dragan present near the start of the book. The reason, as the reader discovers in a few more chapters, is that Frode's employer wants to offer Blomkvist a very strange job.

Over forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, scion of one of Sweden's richest industrial families, disappeared. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been obsessed with her disappearance ever since, but in forty years of investigation has never been able to discover what happened to her. There are some possibilities for how her body could have been transported off the island the Vangers (mostly) lived, and live, on, but motive and suspects are still complete unknowns. Vanger wants Blomkvist to try his hand under the cover of writing a book about the Vanger family. Payment is generous, but even more compelling is Henrik Vanger's offer to give Blomkvist documented, defensible evidence against Wennerström at the end of the year.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor, "Men who hate women") is the first of three mystery novels written at the very end of Stieg Larsson's life, all published posthumously. They made quite a splash when they were published: won multiple awards, sold millions of copies, and have resulted in four movies to date. I've had a copy of the book sitting around for a while and finally picked it up when in the mood for something a bit different.

A major disclaimer up front: I read very little crime and mystery fiction. Every genre has its own conventions and patterns, and regular genre readers often look for different things than people new to that genre. My review is from a somewhat outside and inexperienced perspective, which may not be useful for regular genre readers.

I'm also a US reader, reading the book in translation. It appears to be a very good translation, but it was also quite obvious to me that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was written from a slightly different set of cultural assumptions than I brought to the book. This is one of the merits of reading books from other cultures in translation. It can be eye-opening, and can carry some of the same thrill as science fiction or fantasy, to hit the parts of the book that question your assumptions. But it can also be hard to tell whether some striking aspect of a book is due to a genre convention I wasn't familiar with, a Swedish cultural assumption that I don't share, or just the personal style of the author.

A few things do leap out as cultural differences. Blomkvist has to spend a few months in prison in the middle of this book, and that entire experience is completely foreign to an American understanding of what prison is like. The degradation, violence, and awfulness that are synonymous with prison for an American are almost entirely absent. He even enjoys the experience as quiet time to focus on writing a history of the Vangers (Blomkvist early on decides to take his cover story seriously, since he doubts he'll make any inroads into the mystery of Harriet's disappearance but can at least get a book out of it). It's a minor element in the book, glossed over in a few pages, but it's certainly eye-opening for how minimum security prison could be structured in a civilized country.

Similarly, as an American reader, I was struck by how hard Larsson has to work to ruin Salander's life. Although much of the book is written from Blomkvist's perspective (in tight third person), Lisbeth Salander is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo and becomes more and more involved in the story as it develops. The story Larsson wanted to tell requires that she be in a very precarious position legally and socially. In the US, this would be relatively easy, particularly for someone who acts like Salander does. In Sweden, Larsson has to go to monumental efforts to find ways for Salander to credibly fall through Sweden's comprehensive social safety net, and still mostly relies on Salander's complete refusal to assist or comply with any form of authority or support. I've read a lot about differences in policies around social support between the US and Scandinavian countries, but I've rarely read something that drove the point home more clearly than the amount of work a novelist has to go to in order to mess up their protagonist's life in Sweden.

The actual plot is slow-moving and as much about the psychology of the characters as it is about the mystery. The reader gets inside the thoughts of the characters occasionally, but Larsson shows far more than tells and leaves it to the reader to draw more general conclusions. Blomkvist's relationship with his long-time partner and Millennium co-founder is an excellent example: so much is left unstated that I would have expected other books to lay down in black and white, and the characters seem surprisingly comfortable with ambiguity. (Some of this may be my genre unfamiliarity; SFF tends to be straightforward to a fault, and more literary fiction is more willing to embrace ambiguous relationships.) While the mystery of Harriet's disappearance forms the backbone of the story, rather more pages are spent on Blomkvist navigating the emotional waters of the near-collapse of his career and business, his principles around investigation and journalism, and the murky waters of the Vanger's deeply dysfunctional family.

Harriet's disappearance is something of a locked room mystery. The day she disappeared, a huge crash closed the only bridge from the island to the mainland, both limiting suspects and raising significant questions about why her body was never found on the island. It's also forty years into the past, so Blomkvist has to rely on Henrik Vanger's obsessive archives, old photographs, and old police reports. I found the way it unfolded to be quite satisfying: there are just enough clues to let Blomkvist credibly untangle things with some hard work and research, but they're obscure enough to make it plausible that previous investigators missed them.

Through most of this novel, I wasn't sure what I thought of it. I have a personal interest in Blomkvist's journalistic focus — wrongdoing by rich financiers — but I had trouble warming to Blomkvist himself. He's a very passive, inward character, who spends a lot of the early book reacting to things that are happening to him. Salander is more dynamic and honestly more likable, but she's also deeply messed up, self-destructive, and does some viciously awful things in this book. And the first half of the book is very slow: lots of long conversations, lots of character introduction, and lots of Blomkvist wandering somewhat aimlessly. It's only when Larsson gets the two protagonists together that I thought the book started to click. Salander sees Blomkvist's merits more clearly than the reader can, I think.

I also need to give a substantial warning: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very violent novel, and a lot of that violence is sexual. By mid-book, Blomkvist realizes that Harriet's disappearance is somehow linked with a serial killer whose trademark is horrific, sexualized symbolism drawn from Leviticus. There is a lot of rape here, including revenge rape by a protagonist. If that sort of thing is likely to bother you, you may want to steer way clear.

That said, despite the slow pace, the nauseating subject matter, the occasionally very questionable ethics of protagonists, and a twist of the knife at the very end of the novel that I thought was gratuitously nasty on Larsson's part and wasn't the conclusion I wanted, I found myself enjoying this. It has a different pace and a different flavor than what I normally read, the characters are deep and complex enough to play off each other in satisfying ways, and Salander is oddly compelling to read about. Given the length, it's a substantial investment of time, but I don't regret reading it, and I'm quite tempted to read the sequel. I'm not sure this is the sort of book I can recommend (or not recommend) given my lack of familiarity with the genre, but I think US readers might get an additional layer of enjoyment out of seeing how different of a slant the Swedish setting puts on some of the stock elements of a crime novel.

Followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-05-01

Last modified and spun 2016-05-02