Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

(translated by Steven T Murray)

This book , a runaway bestseller in its original Swedish version, has been widely praised in its English avatar as well. It marks the debut in crime fiction of Stieg Larsson, a rather well known Swedish journalist. Interestingly, this is also a posthumous debut - Larsson died of a sudden heart attack very soon after submitting the manuscripts of this book and its two sequels, to his publisher, and therefore never lived to see their success.But aside of all the hype these facts generated, this is a book memorable for introducing to us an enigmatic young crime fighter- Lisbeth Salander, the deceptively tiny, much tattooed, sociopathic and brilliant young hacker who gives the book its name.

Bur first, the mystery itself -

Harriet Vanger disappears from a small island in Sweden in the middle of a family reunion in the 1950s.Every year after that, a little reminder of her is sent to her grand uncle, Henrik Vanger, patriarch of the dynastic Vanger business empire. Forty years after the disappearance, he decides to hire investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, to solve the mystery under the pretext of writing a book about the family. Blomkvist himself has his issues - he has recently lost a case of libel filed against him by a very powerful industrialist, and Vanger's proposal offers him a chance to regain his reputation. Along the way, he discovers Salander's considerable investigative skills and convinces her to help him figure out what happened to Harriet.

The story begins with what Blomkvist calls a 'classic closed door mystery' and the assumption that Harriet may have been murdered by a family member, but then rapidly progresses towards darker, more sinister possibilities. Even as Blomkvist and Salander try to find clues to Harriet's disappearance, they discover the existence of a religious fanatic, who may have tortured and murdered women over a span of thirty years. I should point out here that the book's original Swedish title was" Men who Hate Women', and that is pretty much what you get here, as Blomkvist steadily unearths evidence of horrific crimes committed against women. Salander is herself a victim of abuse from her legal representative, before she finds a way to outwit him, and this makes the investigation especially important to her. As if that were not enough, each section of the book is preceded by little nuggets of information about the sexual abuse of women in Sweden. In startling contrast to all this brutality (or perhaps to paint a kinder picture of the Swedish male) is Blomkvist himself, who ends up in bed with practically every adult female he meets in the course of his investigation. And is saved in more ways than one by his diminutive female sidekick.

This was an engrossing read despite its slow start ( nearly half the book is over before the first lead to solving the case is found,) but the mystery itself left me disappointed. I guessed the solution to the Harriet mystery fairly early on, especially given the statistics that set the pace of each section. This solution also depends entirely on the presence of photographs documenting the events of the day Harriet disappears, which felt too convenient. A series of codes with Biblical references are rather easily solved, again because Blomkvist's daughter just happens to be a fervent Church-goer. And in the end, after closing the Harriet case, Salander's rather uncanny hacking (and acting) abilities speedily bring Blomkvist his much needed revenge and redemption. Too neat, too easy.

But finally, as the title suggests, the real mystery in this book is not the one concerning Harriet at all, but the gutsy Salander herself. Her remarkable skills are never clearly explained (though autism is fleetingly hinted at), nor her troubled past revealed. She will be the only reason I go read the sequel.


  1. so it's really good like they say? I might have to give a try then...

  2. Book 2 is much better and thoroughly explores Salander's background.

  3. As I said, I was a bit disappointed. And you get the feeling that the author was focused on the character of Salander.. the other characters are never really developed.
    Still, will go with Reg's comment and find the sequel.