Set in Stockholm and a small country town in the north of Sweden, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO tells the mesmerizing story of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has been charged with and convicted of libel after writing a story about sketchy financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Blomkvist’s conviction shakes him to his professional core and even threatens Millennium, the magazine for which he is publisher. To add insult to injury, he knows he was right about Wennerstrom --- if only he could prove it. But with things looking exceedingly bleak, he tells his partner and sometime girlfriend, Erika Berger, that he’s going to leave Stockholm and accept a curious job offer.
Fading business tycoon Henrik Vanger, now 82 and living in semi-retirement in the small northern community of Hedestad, summons Blomkvist to his home and lays out a rather strange opportunity for him. Vanger wants to hire him for a two-fold purpose: first, to write a chronicle of the Vanger family; and second, to solve the mystery of one of the darkest moments in that family’s history --- the murder of his great-niece Harriet in 1966. But why is Vanger proposing this to him? As strange as it seems, Blomkvist starts to seriously consider the offer. He is sort of persona non grata in the journalism business at the moment, and most tempting of all, Vanger has offered him confidential information that will be given to him after one year of his work and research on the Vanger project --- information guaranteed to bring down Wennerstrom once and for all.
But the endless reams of paperwork and police files, not to mention chasing down leads, proves exhausting for Blomkvist. He realizes that he needs to call in a crackerjack assistant to help him research. And who better than the woman who gave such a thorough background check on him to Vanger? The sullen but street-smart Lisbeth Salander, who, with her dyed raven-black hair “looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers,” is brought into the mix to aid in his investigation. Salander, although 24, is a ward of the state, which has deemed her mentally unstable and therefore must be looked after by a guardian. Her old state-appointed guardian had been a wonderful, stabilizing force in her very sad life.
However, with his sudden illness, a new, less wonderful guardian had been appointed, and soon he’s making unwanted advances. Salander must try to find a way to navigate this precarious situation, because one bad report from this new sentinel and she can be placed in a home against her will. Made tough by an even tougher childhood, Salander is a star researcher but keeps mostly to herself. With her multiple tattoos and piercings, she exudes a kind of odd charm. Her boss at the security firm likens her to a “nagging itch, repellent and at the same time tempting.” Despite her anti-social ways, she has a knack of ferreting out information so thoroughly that Blomkvist invites her to join the investigation. This unlikely pair sets about finding what happened to Vanger all those years ago.
The original title for this thriller was MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. The decision to go with an allusion to the enigmatic and unforgettable character of Lisbeth Salander was a wise one. Larsson has been a well-known and sometimes controversial journalist and crime novelist in his native Sweden, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is only the first in a series he wrote before his sudden death from a heart attack in 2004 at age 50. But his untimely passing hasn’t stopped Larsson from making headlines. Apart from this series being a huge bestseller in Sweden and other parts of Europe, Larsson’s estate is in the midst of a fierce battle. Since he died without a will, his family received his estate and his live-in girlfriend of 20 years received nothing. That is, until it was recently revealed that the girlfriend maintains possession of Larsson’s computer, which happens to have his last unpublished book on it. And this is what is at the heart of the legal brouhaha --- the new, never-before-published novel from a crime-writing master.
Stieg Larsson was named one of the “50 Crime Writers One Must Read Before You Die” by the UK paper The Telegraph, and it’s easy to see why. This atmospheric thriller is so tautly plotted and full of well-rounded, albeit flawed, characters who jump right off the page. It might feel a tad slow in the beginning (though that can be chalked up to European writers being more amenable to taking their time), but once the story hits its stride, the reader is riveted. The Swedish setting is moody and evocative of thrillers like SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW. And because of the remote island setting, it makes terrific use of that wonderful whodunit element, the “locked room mystery.”
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO will win fans among all types of readers, even those who never thought a thriller could leave such an indelible mark on them.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 22, 2011