Review – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Before he started writing novels, Stieg Larsson was a crusading journalist, dedication his life to opposing racism, contributing for many years to searchlight, the British anti-fascist magazine. At the same time, he was writing fiction and eventually sent one of his novels to a Swedish publisher, who snapped it up.
The Girl with the dragon tattoo, published in Sweden in 2005, is the first volume in the “Millennium” trilogy, named after the magazine where the protagonist Michael Blomkvist works. It quickly became an international bestseller. In Sweden alone, the trilogy’s sales have topped two million, while In Denmark it has reportedly outsold everything except the Bible. Tragically, Larsson did not live to enjoy this success; he died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 50, before the novels were published.
Given all this, it is hard not to approach the novel with heighted expectations.
The Girl with the dragon Tattoo opens with an intriguing mystery. Henrik vanger, an octogenarian industrialist, hires Michael Blomkvist, a journalist who has just lost a libel case under murky circumstances, to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Nearly 40 years earlier, Harriet vanished from a small island mostly owned by the Vanger family, and Henrik has never gotten over it.
Blomvist takes on the case, despite serious misgivings, after Henrik promise him a huge sum for a year’s work. Henrik says he’s certain that someone in his family murdered Harriet. “I detest most of the members of my family,” he tells Blomkvist. ‘They are for the most part thieves, miser, bullies and incompetents” – a description that will prove to be, if anything, too king.
The story begins at a low point in Blomkvist’s career, as head of the powerful Wennerstorm Group; he faces a short prison sentence. His reputation is in tatters and the future of his magazine in jeopardy. The girl of the title of isn’t Hattiet but Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old computer hacker with a photographic memory, a violent temper and some serious intimacy issues. After a nasty plot detour involving a lawyer foolish enough to try take advantage of her, Slander teams with Blomvist to solve the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance.
As crime-fiction fans will quickly recognize, Harrit’s disappearance is a classic locked-room mystery. The Vanger family lives on Hedeby Island, which is linked to the nearby town of Hedestad by a single bridge. On the day that 16 year-old Harriet went missing, a car collided with an oil tanker on the bridge, cutting off the island for several hours. Harriet was last seen shortly before the crash and it was only much later that day, when the debris was removed, that her absence from the island was noted. An increasingly frantic search took place, but her body was never found.
Three of Vanger’s brother is eventually exposed as Nazis, supporting Per Engdahl’s fascist movement, and the rest of the family is also unsavory on one way or another. But Larsson’s other great preoccupation is violence against women, and the scarcely believable horrors Blomvist unearths are as rooted in misogyny as they are in fascism. This is reflected in the novel’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women.
But back to Lisbeth Salander.
But back to Blomvist’s investigation, she is slight, serially abused, little autistic but a brilliant computer hacker. Originally employed to investigate Blomvist, she attaches herself to him the ferocious loyalty of a tamed feral animal and plays a crucial role in uncovering Harriet’s startling fate. It’s not hard to see why Larrson invented her; if Blomvist is his fictional alter ego, Salander seems to be confirmation of his belief in a woman’s capacity to survive the most dreadful abuse. She isn’t so much a character as a sort of revenge fantasy comes to life, powering her way through the novel like the heroine of a computer game and undermining its gritty realism. The issue that most saturates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that of shocking sexual violence primarily against women, but not excluding men. Salander and Blovist both confront prima facie evidence of such crimes. Larsson, who take his time establishing this theme in his text, never wants the reader to lose sight of this topic even if it isn’t floating on top, so he introduces each of the book’s four parts with statistics on the subject. For instance, for Part 1, he informs, “Eighteen per cent of the women of Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.”
The novel perks up as their investigation gains speed, though readers will need some time to sort through the cousins and nephews and half-brothers and – sisters who populate the Vanger family. Harrirt’s case turns out to be connected to a series of murders in the 1950s and “60s. When a cat is killed and its tortured corpse is left outside the cottage where Blomvist is living, he and Salander realize they may not be working on a cold after all. Can imagine that the novel is dense, and indeed it is. Slow to reveal its won’t be finished quickly. However, it does remain a fascinating read throughout. Structured as a methodical procedural that proceeds on a generally tight trajectory; this is no humdrum, predictable novel. It is not without some really suspenseful and chillingly ugly sense. It take Blomkvist almost half the book to make any kind of breakthrough, when he spots something odd in a photograph of Harriet taken on the morning of her vanishing, and a series of coded numbers are revealed to him as references to biblical chapter and verse. At over 500 pages, there are minor flaws here and there perhaps has to do with Larsson’s tackling a serious and complicated topic – hatred and abused of woman – in a genre that isn’t serious to begin with.
It’s surprising to note that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in the US the same week in September 2008 that Lehman Brothers collapsed. In the many dissections of this literary phenomenon, much has been said about Salander, Larsson’s heroine. Strangely, far less attention has been paid to the equally prominent villains in this novel – without exception, bankers and industrialists. At the of its American release, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was far more topical than most anyone could imagine. “A bank direction who blows millions on foolhardy speculations should not keep his job,” writes Larsson in one typical passage. “A managing director who plays shell company games should do time.” Larsson is no less lacerating about influential journalists who treat “mediocre financial whelps like rock stars” and who docilely “regurgitate the statements issued by CEOs and stock-market speculors.” He pleads for some “tough report” to “identify and expose as traitors the financial players who have “systematically and perhaps deliberately” damaged their country’s economy “to satisfy the interests of their clients”
“What’s remarkable is that Larsson wrote all this in a book completed years before the financial meltdown of 2008 – and was referring only to Sweden. And yet the overlap with our recent history is profound – so much so that surely both his prescience and the universal resonance of his novel’s marathon ride through the zeitgeist and its ability to connect with so many readers in America and throughout the West.
Larsson’s prose is bright and functional, like Sweden, with barely a hint of poetry and, while not all the characters are exactly multifaceted, the plotting and pacing at turns quite masterful. It’s not all literary games, though. In keeping with recent Swedish fiction in this genre, Larsson has lacerating comments to make about contemporary Swedish society. His theme, in addition to violence against women, concern the incompetence and cowardice of investigation journalists, the moral bankruptcy of big capital and the virulent strain of Nazism still festering away beneath everyday life. Even more daringly, he broaches the touchy subject of how responsible a criminal is for his or her crimes. Once upon a time we blamed inborn rottenness of some kind. Nowadays we tend to blame poverty, social injustice, parental abuse, a difficult childhood – anything and anyone except the criminal. As Salander says, it’s as if we no longer believe anyone has a will of his or her own.
Memorable and timely, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is deserving of most of the hype and accolades with which it has been greeted with since its publication in Sweden and America. Intelligent and epic, it’s a largely adult read, the antithesis, perhaps, to the manufactured juvenilia of James Patterson, and the like. Crime fiction has seldom needed to salute and mourn a stellar talent such as Larsson’s in the breath.