Friday, July 30, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I'm late to the mania surrounding Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. I've resisted reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) for three reasons: (1) I'm generally not thrilled with novels translated from the original language. In this case, well-respected translator Steven T. Murray asked that his name be removed from the book because he was unhappy with the way the publisher had mucked with his translation; (2) I looked at the family tree in the front of the book and winced at the long list of five generations of suspects; and (3) The freaking paperback is 644 pages long.

Never let it be said that I'm ashamed to admit I'm shallow.

Last Wednesday Diane Rehm hosted an hour-long book review of TGWTDT. I was sufficiently intrigued that I bought the novel and finished it over four evenings.

TGWTDT is really two books in one. The central story is the mystery of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet who went missing in 1966. Her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, is a famed Swedish industrialist obsessed with uncovering the answer to what he believes was her murder.

For several years before her disappearance, Harriet had given Henrik framed dried flowers for his birthday. During the nearly forty years since she vanished, someone has been sending him framed dried flowers for his birthday in anonymous packages. Henrik believes the murderer is mocking him and, furthermore, is convinced the culprit must be a member of his vast extended family.

Now 82, Henrik decides to hire a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist to review the evidence compiled in the cold case to see if fresh eyes can uncover some new clue that will lead to an answer.

The character of Blomkvist links the mystery part of the novel to the second part of the novel, which is essentially a financial crime story. Blomkvist is the co-founder and co-owner of an investigative magazine called Millennium. As the novel begins, Blomkvist has been found guilty of libel for a story he published accusing a wealthy financier of corporate malfeasance. He is facing a stiff fine and a few months in prison, but those pale beside the loss of credibility for his magazine and for him personally. He has been forced to step down from daily management of Millennium.

Henrik convinces Blomkvist to accept a year-long assignment to investigate Harriet's murder with two lures: (1) the promise of more than $350,000 for the year and (2) proof positive that Wennerström, the wealthy financier who sued Blomkvist, really is a crook.

Although Blomkvist is nominally the protagonist, the soul of TGWTDT is Lisbeth Salander, she of the title. Here is the description of Lisbeth, which doesn't come until Page 41:
... a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle ... She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers ... She had simply been born thin, with slender bones that made her look girlish and fine-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four, but she sometimes looked fourteen.
Salander is a crack researcher and a superb computer hacker with a photographic memory. She is asocial, antisocial and utterly ruthless. She is judge, jury and executioner, willing to do whatever it takes to redress a wrong. Larsson made me care about her. I found myself cheering for Lisbeth and feeling her pain. She's a terrific character.

Blomkvist enlists Salander's help, first in solving Harriet's disappearance and later in addressing the financial crime. The pair are as unlikely a crime-solving duo as you are apt to find in the world of fiction.

Blomkvist is obviously the author's alter ego, but the description of him is barely adequate. He's over forty, friendly and sympathetic and every woman he meets wants to bed him. While I understand Larsson's male fantasy, I found it extremely improbable. I also found it ironic that this man who is an absolute magnet for women pays hardly any attention to his own teenage daughter--he actually goes the six months from Christmas to mid-June without seeming to think of her once. She is forced to show up on his doorstep to remind him of her existence. And even then he doesn't immediately recognize her!

The reader is given very little insight into what makes Blomkvist tick. He moves the story along and helps Larsson expound on his themes:
  • The corrupt Swedish power structure
  • Pervasive violence against women in Sweden
  • The incompetency of most investigative journalists
  • His hatred for the right-wing extremist groups in Sweden

The structure of the novel is similar to that of a sandwich. The financial crime story is the bread surrounding the mystery of Harriet's disappearance. The mystery whizzes along; the financial crime story plods endlessly.

Larsson obviously loved the mystery genre. He gives homage both directly and indirectly to the best writers of the genre. TGWTDT is a variant on the locked room mystery. Nearly the entire Vanger clan was on a small island in northern Sweden when an accident on the bridge to the island cut them off from the mainland. Therefore, the culprit was trapped along with the family during the period of Harriet's disappearance. The people-trapped-on-an-island trope is a reminder of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the seventh most printed book of all time, which to date has sold 100 million copies.

Salander's character reminded me of Kathy Mallory, Carol O'Connell's wonderfully antisocial heroine. She also reminds me of Andrew Vachss' Burke. Vachss once said:

If you look at Burke closely, you'll see the prototypical abused child: hypervigilant, distrustful. He's so committed to his family of choice — not his DNA-biological family, which tortured him, or the state which raised him, but the family that he chose — that homicide is a natural consequence of injuring any of that family ... he shares the same religion I do, which is revenge.
Vachss could have been describing Salander.

Larsson died at age 50 before TGWTDT was published. According to Diane Rehm, he had just turned the three manuscripts over to his publisher. When he returned to his office, the elevator was out. He ran up seven flights of stairs and died of a massive heart attack.

I plan to read The Girl Who Played With Fire, Larsson's second novel in the Millennium trilogy.

No comments: