Published today, September 16, 2008.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in a trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, a celebrated Swedish writer who saw his books achieve great success in Europe but passed away suddently at the age of 50 before he could see them published in the U.S. This is a mystery/thriller that defies the cliches of its genre by combining an edge-of-your-seat story with incredibly well-drawn characters and will appeal to readers of all types.
The story focuses on Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged financial reporter who, after being convicted of libel in a very public court battle, is hired by aging “captain of industry” Henrik Vanger to ghostwrite Vanger’s autobiography and solve the mystery of who killed his grandniece Harriet forty-four years ago. Blomkvist travels to Vanger’s home on Hedeby Island and moves into a cottage on the property, where he hunkers down for one year (except for the two months he spends in prison, serving his libel sentence) and buries himself in Vanger’s archives and family history. He gets to know many of the eccentric members of the Vanger family (and even has an affair with one!), and though he doubts he’ll be able to solve the mystery, Blomkvist is grateful for the opportunity to spend a year out of the public eye and get paid for it.
Unbeknownst to Blomkvist, Henrik Vanger commissioned a private investigation into his life prior to hiring him, which was conducted by Lisbeth Salander, a very weird but wickedly smart gothy twenty-five-year-old with a troubled past and the ability to dig up the dirt on just about anyone. When Blomkvist requests that Vanger hire him a research assistant, Lisbeth’s name comes up, and she quickly joins the main line of the story.
Blomkvist and Salander are nice foils for each other, and they form an interesting and unlikely team. Larsson skillfully reveals the pieces of his puzzle bit by bit, unfolding them with gradually built tension rather than the bang-bang-bang pace of many contemporary mysteries. There is a good deal of expository writing to help readers get into the heads of the main characters and understand them on a deeper level, and I really appreciated that Larsson didn’t neglect his characters or sacrifice their quality for the sake of telling an interesting story. It is possible to do both, and to do them well, and this book is solid evidence of that.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is divided into four sections, each with an overarching theme and its own focus, and these sections give the book a satisfying pace that makes you want to keep reading but never gives you that “wait, what just happened?” feeling that comes with many thrillers. Larsson’s story unfolds over the course of a year, and his characters and details, and the pieces of the mystery, are all real and believable. This book is scary in the same way that Silence of the Lambs is scary—because you know things like this happen in the real world, and it’s difficult to think about them. That said, Larsson doesn’t go for the cheap thrills or the easy fright-factor. There are a few very chilling scenes, particularly in the third and fourth sections of the book, and they will remind you why it’s not good to read scary books before bedtime.
As Blomkvist and Salander solve the mystery of Harriet’s murder, they also puzzle over how to redeem Blomkvist’s reputation and regain his credibility, and the denouements of both of these storylines are unexpected and interesting. Larsson’s writing is original and not at all formulaic, and I found that incredibly refreshing. His exploration of Lisbeth’s personal life and painful experiences is touching and painful, and in a scene that is disturbing and entertaingly ironic, he gives her a very satisfying moment of revenge against a person who has mistreated her.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an engaging read and a wonderful introduction to two characters I look forward to spending more time with in the future. If only we didn’t have to wait another year for the second book to come out! I give this one a very happy 4.5 out of 5.