A Stockholm Holmes & His Engaging Watson
Monday, September 22, 2008
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
By Stieg Larsson
Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Knopf. 465 pp. $24.95
A Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger, on his 82nd birthday, receives a pressed flower in the mail, as he has for each of the 36 years since his beloved 16-year-old grand-niece Harriet vanished. This flower, like all the others, comes with no note, no return address and no fingerprints. After decades of futile investigations, Henrik has painfully concluded that Harriet is dead and the flowers are the killer's way of tormenting him. This time, believing he has not long to live, the old man decides to make one last attempt to penetrate the mystery, and he turns for help to a disgraced Stockholm journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.
Thus begins this remarkable first novel by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" has been a huge bestseller in Europe and will be one here if readers are looking for an intelligent, ingeniously plotted, utterly engrossing thriller that is variously a serial-killer saga, a search for a missing person and an informed glimpse into the worlds of journalism and business.
Henrik is the head of a large, multi-generational clan, most of whom hate one another and not without cause. Their history includes rape, incest, wife abuse and Nazism, and the old man suspects that a family member killed Harriet, for reasons unknown. The poignant Henrik is the first of several fine characterizations. Mikael, whose specialty as a journalist is economics, is a decent, principled fellow, but as the novel begins he's been convicted of libeling an industrialist named Wennerstrom. He thinks he was set up -- deliberately fed false information -- but he's sentenced to four months in prison. Before he serves his time, Henrik recruits him to investigate Harriet's disappearance. Mikael doesn't want the job, but Henrik offers him a fortune and, more important, promises him information that can bring down Wennerstrom. "I want you to find out who in the family murdered Harriet, and who since then has spent almost forty years trying to drive me insane," the old man says.
In time we meet a fiendish and all too efficient serial killer, but the novel's most memorable character is the woman who provides its title. Lisbeth Salander is 24, anorexic, with dyed, cropped hair, a pierced nose and eyebrows, and too many tattoos to list. She's the most formidable hacker in Sweden, and her ability to (illegally) penetrate computers has made her a valued researcher for a security company. That's how she meets Mikael, who hires her to help with his investigation. Lisbeth resists all authority. As a child she was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she refused to cooperate in any way. As an adult she is burdened with a court-appointed trustee who oversees her money, and after he rapes her, he pays dearly for his mistake. She is emotionally damaged, fragile, brilliant, capable of murder and entirely fascinating, particularly when she finds herself, to her astonishment, falling in love. Lisbeth is a punk Watson to Mikael's dapper Holmes, and she's the coolest crime-fighting sidekick to come along in many years.
Harriet vanished one afternoon when the Vangers had gathered on a small island they control off the coast of Sweden. Henrik has regretfully concluded that she was murdered -- why else would she not have contacted her family in 36 years? -- but the reader has to wonder if she's still alive. Did she run off with a lover? Does she send those flowers each year herself? Mikael and Lisbeth's search for her is complex and wildly suspenseful. The Vanger family contains a rogue's gallery of possible murderers. Mikael, who's something of a ladies' man, lets himself be seduced by one of the more likable Vanger women but in time comes to suspect her along with the others. Inevitably, Mikael and Lisbeth do uncover leads that the police had missed, and their success puts their lives at risk.
It's hard to find fault with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." One must struggle with bewildering Swedish names, but that's a small price to pay. The story starts off at a leisurely pace, but the reader soon surrenders to Larsson's skillful narrative. We care about his characters because we come to know them so well. The central question -- what happened to Harriet? -- is answered in due course, and other matters involving romance and revenge are wrapped up as well. It's a book that lingers in the mind.
Stieg Larsson was the editor of an anti-racist magazine called Expo, an expert on right-wing extremists and Nazis and for 20 years the graphics editor of a Swedish news agency. He died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50, after delivering the manuscripts of this and two more novels that also feature Mikael and Lisbeth. Knopf plans to publish the other two, and it will be interesting to see if they equal the high standard set by "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."