Monday, March 14, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

It took a couple years on the international bestseller list, as well as an acclaimed series of Swedish film adaptations, before the Millennium trilogy caught my eye. Normally I’m one to steer clear of the mainstream, so popular crime/action novels have rarely caught my eye. However, in this case, you can believe the hype. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the full package: an absorbing, action-packed murder mystery with all the suspense and psychological intrigue of a Hitchcock film, as well as engaging characters and a heaping helping of social commentary; particularly on violence against women, which author Stieg Larsson declared was the central theme of the series.

Henrik Vanger is an elderly billionaire, as well as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family, who has been haunted for almost forty years by the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Though detectives have long since abandoned the case, Vanger employs Michael Blomkvist, a famous journalist, to solve the mystery through extensive research of archived police reports, articles and photographs. In his investigation, Blomkvist uncovers deadly family secrets and conspiracies traced back through generations of corrupt heirs to the family fortune.

Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a pierced and tattooed delinquent in her mid-twenties, who is living under legal guardianship due to being declared insane and thereby “legally incompetent.” However, Lisbeth is disarmingly intelligent and cunning, a skilled hacker and an expert at digging up confidential information. She’s an endlessly fascinating character made up of contradictions: strong yet vulnerable, proud yet insecure, antisocial yet displaying a sense of camaraderie with abused women. Although the book has plenty of merits, it’s Lisbeth that moves the story along and adds a significant human element to the mysteries and plot twists.

It’s through Lisbeth that Larsson effectively presents his criticism of the Swedish Guardianship Agency, which Lisbeth lives under the mercy of due to her psychological profile. Her guardian controls all her legal powers, including her bank accounts, and predictably, he abuses this power and sexually assaults Lisbeth. Furthermore, Larsson inserts facts and statistics on violence against women at the beginning of each divided section of the book. For example, Part I begins with “Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” Lisbeth represents the millions of women who fall through the cracks in the justice system every day. She’s been abused by men all her life and has developed some severe trust issues with authority. On principle, she never seeks help from police, opting instead to take matters into her own hands—in her own, not-quite-legal way.

Michael Blomkvist, on the other hand, is not quite a likeable character, nor is he nearly as engaging. He’s divorced because of his infidelity, and is a neglectful father; other than that, he is the static Everyman, almost a stock character. Larsson does succeed, however, in making all his characters humanly flawed and thereby believable. Never does he shy away from Blomkvist’s flaws or go out of his way to make him likeable. I would imagine he neglected Blomkvist’s development in favor of Lisbeth, for she’s the star of the series. It is Blomkvist’s investigative journey through layers of mystery and corruption that is more intriguing than the character himself; therefore one might say the novel alternates between being plot-driven and character-driven, though it does provide a substantial amount of both.

The Vanger family is a morbidly fascinating lot: manipulative, bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic—in short, they’re better than reality TV. Even Henrik Vanger himself, a reasonably benevolent man, reveals his manipulative side, though it’s more often used for good than for evil. The Vanger lineage contains several lifetimes’ worth of financial conspiracies and histories of abuse, and some of the more interesting characters are the few (fairly) sane members of the family who survive their upbringings relatively unscathed.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the most satisfying book I’ve read in a while. For the most part, it successfully combines action and mystery with character study, and the writing style flows in a way that makes it compulsively readable. I could barely put this book down until I finished it, all the while thinking, “What’s going to happen next?” This is a novel that keeps you guessing until the end, seizing your attention and holding it until the ride is over. If you’re looking for a book that will leave you breathless, as well as characters that remain with you long after the book is closed, take this one off the shelf and clear your schedule.

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