In February, our book club read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland). Everyone decided that it was “just what we needed.” We usually read literary works — national book award winners, etc. But sometimes you just need to read a mystery. And this is a smart mystery. We admired the writing, the subject matter and the setting in Sweden as well as the suspense. It’s a book you can’t put down. It wasn’t the prefect book, employing some cliched situations, and it certainly wasn’t uplifting, but we couldn’t wait to find out what happened next anyway. We also can’t wait for Larsson’s next two books. Sadly, these two books will also be his last, because he died in 2004. (Below is a review from the New York Times.)
Here’s what Chris wrote: I really did like it. It kept me engrossed; sadism is not, however, something I enjoy reading about. I hated the ending but it made great sense and any other would have been hokey. I thought the relationships were well done, especially for a detective/suspense novel. I’d bought that book for Bill as one of top 100 (crime/suspense) novels I researched on the web and knew he liked that author….he’s reading it now, too late, every night…..
New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani, published September 30, 2008.
Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a huge best seller in the author’s native Sweden, and a sensation in France, Germany and the Netherlands too.
It’s Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists — Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo — who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion.
Mr. Larsson — who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel and two companion volumes — was himself a journalist and a magazine editor, and his knowledge of this world enables him to do a credible job of recounting Blomkvist’s efforts to investigate the two biggest stories of his career: corruption, embezzlement and money laundering on the part of a big-shot Swedish industrialist, and the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet, who seemingly vanished without a trace during a family reunion.
At the same time, Mr. Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.
When it comes to explaining the mystery behind Harriet’s disappearance and the big reveal about her family’s secret, however, Mr. Larsson stumbles badly, resorting to every bad cliché from every bad serial-killer movie ever shown on late night TV — a pity since he’s done such a credible job of showing how Blomkvist has been piecing together clues from police files, interviews and old photographs. It’s as if the author had shown us how an intricate jigsaw puzzle had been put together — from border outlines and chunks of the picture, down to the last few missing pieces — only to pull back at the end to show us that the completed puzzle depicts not an interesting photograph or painting, but a garish slasher cartoon.
Blomkvist, we learn, is a disgraced reporter, who — for reasons that become clear only later — has just lost a criminal libel case brought by a Swedish tycoon named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist’s magazine is now teetering toward financial ruin, even as Blomkvist himself is pondering how to pay his legal bills.
In steps another prominent industrialist named Henrik Vanger, who makes Blomkvist an offer he can’t refuse: investigate the decades-old case of Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared one autumn day in the 1960s; in return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist handsomely, and he will also provide Blomkvist with some revealing information about Wennerström, who got his start with Vanger’s company many years ago.
Harriet’s disappearance is a variation on one of those locked-room puzzles constructed by mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers. The teenager was last seen on the small island that the Vanger clan calls home one September afternoon in 1966; a spectacular accident involving an oil truck had closed the one bridge to the island for 24 hours, and when family members noticed her absence the following morning, search parties looked for her everywhere: going through every building, chimney and well, scouring every field and cliff, dragging all the spots where she might have drowned.
Vanger is convinced that Harriet was murdered, and that her murderer has been taunting him ever since. Each year, on his birthday, he has received in the mail a pressed flower in a picture frame, the same gift Harriet gave him when she was a child; the flowers always arrive in padded envelopes with no return address.
After studying the available evidence and meeting many members of the Vanger family (many of whom seem to harbor ancient grievances against one another), Blomkvist manages to turn up three new pieces to the Harriet puzzle. To put them together, he enlists the help of Salander, a freelance investigator for a security firm who once investigated Blomkvist himself. Salander, a wraith-thin waif with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners attitude and history of anti-social behavior, seems less like a conventional detective than like a loaded gun, waiting to go off. She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed — picture Angelina Jolie teamed up with a young Robert Redford — but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel, particularly as Mr. Larsson loses control of his messy, increasingly implausible plot.
In fact, it’s clear as the story progresses that Mr. Larsson has no idea how to create a credible villain, for the two people most responsible for Harriet’s disappearance turn out to be patched-together bad guys with none of the malevolent originality of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter or the manipulative perversion of Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct.”
It’s the detectives who are the stars of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and the reader can only hope that Salander and Blomkvist put in return appearances in the two other novels Mr. Larsson completed before his death.