Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I was late to the game reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson's suspenseful and intricately plotted novel, since I just picked it up last week while searching for a vacation "beach book." I tore through it in a couple days, so it fit the bill, but it's also a multi-layered and intelligent read.

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist just sentenced to prison for libel against a Swedish mogul when he's contacted by Henrik Vanger, who wants Blomkvist to solve the decades-old disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Lisbeth Salander is a twenty-something "punk prodigy" and private investigator who's hired by Vanger's lawyer to look into Blomkvist's background. Together (though they don't meet for hundreds of pages) they try to deduce what happened to Harriet — under the pretense of writing Vanger's autobiography — while also unraveling another family mystery that emerges and clearing Blomkvist's name in the libel case.

There's a lot going on, but Larsson has deftly interwoven the various threads of the plot while introducing two compelling characters. Blomkvist is at once serious about his work as a financial journalist — "he comes off a little like Practical Pig in the Three Little Pigs" — as he reveals corruption in the corporate world. But he's also a "big hit" with women and maintains a two-decade long relationship with his married editor, whose husband is fine with the arrangement. Blomkvist is a dashing hero, yet one who is cunning and vengeful at the same time.

His foil, Salander — she of the dragon tattoo — is even more compelling, yet more difficult to grasp. Larsson devotes pages over the course of the novel to physical descriptions of her ("a pale, anorexic young woman, who had hair as short as a fuse and a pierced nose and eyebrows… she was a natural red head, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as thought she had just emerged from a week long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.") and gives us back story, but she remains elusive.

The plot and the characters are in capable hands. Larsson's Sweden is a dark place, but one he elevates beyond the setting of a standard thriller. Blomkvist and Salander's working — and romantic — relationship is surprising, but it's an epic pairing. It's unfortunate that we can only see them in action a little bit more — Larsson, who died in 2004, left behind three manuscripts. His second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was published in translation earlier this year (yesterday I was #75 on the waiting list at the library), and the third is forthcoming.

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