Recent research shows that even Swedes consider Sweden to be a damning place; a land where crying at funerals is frowned upon, and screaming too much during childbirth is unnecessary.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo embraces this doom-and-gloom mentality and others up a horrific episode of violence, betrayal, and misery.
To be clear these dark moments are what makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so great. In the depths of despair comes hope, salvation and prosperity (sometimes).
Likewise, the subtle moments of human connection and relationship building are of equal magnitude, making this one of my favourite books. There, I said it.
A disgraced journalist and part owner of Millennium magazine, Mikael Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger to discover the truth about his missing Granddaughter, Harriet Vanger. At age sixteen she disappeared without a trace from the island, and now thirty years later, Henrik is taunted by the killer with gifts ‘from Harriet’ on his birthday.
Along with elite hacker and social outcast, Lisbeth Salander, Mikael must uncover the truth behind the mystery, risking everything in the process.
Modern Sweden is propped up by shadowy industrial families, with the Vanger family fitting that exact role.
One downside to the first quarter of this book is all the economics and politics that are dumped at your feet. In spite of, this information is either needed to set the tone or to set-up later plot points.
A Real Thrill
Like all great Detective Thrillers, this book has so many multi-layered characters that regularly intersect with each other over time, making the story come to life as it continues to evolve with each twist and turn.
You always believe you know what’s about to happen, or at least what is happening, you’re cut off. Completely cut off!
Lisbeth is the main character, although the narrative does shift between herself and Blomkvist.
Not your classic beauty, Lisbeth is devised from another Swedish character, Pippi Longstocking. Our heroine is ‘pale and anorexic’, with dyed black hair cut ‘as short as a fuse’ with no style choice. With a pierced nose and eyebrows, unconventional tattoos, and her selection of clothing, Lisbeth sticks out of most public places like a nun in a brothel.
As an elite hacker, Lisbeth is skilled in finding out just about anyone’s secrets via their computer’s hard-drive, internet history, and previous records. This makes her a highly respected employee (freelancer) of Milton Security, which is why she was chosen to undertake the research needed by the Vanger family when deciding whether to hire Mikael Blomkvist.
Lisbeth has a high reliability despite being such a niche persona. She’s outcast by society, and she’s vulnerable, yet she’s also determined to prove her worth. To rise above those who’ve caused her harm and those who’re taking advantage of others.
Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo holds onto this focal point like a bad dream.
This book is a commentary on misogyny, an attack on it.
Through every turn, we’re shown the misogynists, the chauvinists and the pigs of society who prey on weak women, but do any of them ever get the upper hand?
In the end; no.
The counterpoint to these misogynistic men is Blomkvist. He’s not like the individuals who’ve crossed Lisbeth’s path before. He doesn’t abuse her, he doesn’t interrogate her, and he certainly doesn’t try to take charge of her.
He allows Lisbeth to make her own decisions regarding the case, even if at times he doesn’t understand her reasoning. He knows what she’s good at and lets her get along with it accordingly.
Upbringing vs Society
How responsible are we for the sins that we commit? Can one truly escape the past?
For instance, Lisbeth has a dedicated will to stand up and be strong in the face of adversity. She’s suffered many horrific incidents; both sexual assault and mentally bullied, as a young girl/teenager, but always comes out fighting.
Even when raped by her legal guardian, Nils Bjurman, who’s using his position of power to take advantage, she responds almost immediately with an attack of her own. One that is equally as brutal, turning the power of their relationship.
In contrast, Martin Vanger also suffered, at the fate of his father, but has gone down the opposite path.
Instead of being somebody who fights back against his suppression, he has succumbed to it. He has become his Father’s hate.
They’re not only opposite sides of the coin but are also on opposite sides of the fight (to uncover the mystery of Harriet Vanger).
One of the downsides to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the constant info-dumps forced upon you. This is no more evident than the case of the Vanger family. As Henrik shows Mikael around the area, we’re bombarded with their backstories.
There are eight of them so you can imagine the details that you need to pay attention too. If you skim read, you’ll surely miss the key points that make the finale worthwhile.
However, considering how epic this book is, not only in quantity but in quality, these info-dumps are only a small drawback.
It’s sad to note that a potentially hard-hitting crime writer’s career has been cut short before it could even begin. Yet it’s with much enjoyment that this book will be one of the genre greats.
I look forward to reading Stieg Larsson’s next two books, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest.
I’d 100% recommend The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to anyone who enjoys a good thriller, though it’s not for the fainthearted.
Daun, A. (2006). Swedish mentality. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.