A complicated plot and unfamiliar landscapes are among the attractions of this bestselling Swedish crime novel.
My best reads are always the books I have heard nothing about. So when I was given a book with an original title as provocative as its red-colour cover with a bare-backed girl with a dragon tattoo, I knew I would not be disappointed.
Män Som Hatar Kvinnor — literally, “Men Who Hate Women” — renamed in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, named after the magazine where the protagonist Mikael Blomkvist works. At his death in November 2004, Larsson, a publishing sensation and a writer, who came from nowhere and sold millions of books in Scandinavia, left three unpublished novels that make up the trilogy.
Before he started writing novels, Larsson was a campaigning journalist. He dedicated his life to opposing racism, contributing for many years to Searchlight, the British anti-fascist magazine. At the same time, he was writing fiction and eventually sent one of his novels to a Swedish publisher, who snapped it up. Any crime novel that begins with a tender, detailed description of a flower is bound to be interesting, right?
Blomkvist, a journalist in Sweden, is publisher and co-owner of the independent magazine Millennium. He publishes hard-hitting investigations into the mostly shady dealings of the country’s richest companies. However, a wealthy financier, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, sues him for libel. Blomkvist loses and is sentenced to a few months in jail.
His fellow publisher, and on-and-off lover, Erika Berger, decide the best way to ensure the magazine’s survival is for Blomkvist to take a year’s leave of absence, during which time he will serve his jail sentence. At around the same time, Blomkvist is surprised to be summoned by Herr Frode, a lawyer, to meet reclusive-but-wealthy Henrik Vanger, who has a very interesting proposition for Blomkvist.
Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of his great-niece Harriet, who disappeared 40 years ago, and is convinced that a member of the family has committed the murder. Blomkvist initially refuses the offer but changes his mind when Vanger offers him not only money but also enough evidence against Wennerstrom to get him convicted. Vanger suggests Blomkvist use the pretence of writing Vanger’s biography as a cover for his investigation.
The large number of characters that Larsson introduces in the story can be tedious, though interesting. On occasions I had to close the book to recall where all the characters were placed. What intrigued me most was the unfamiliar landscape that is as captivating as the unexpected plot. (When was the last time you read a Swedish novel?)
But the book’s most enigmatic character is Lisbeth Salander (the girl with the dragon tattoo) who becomes crucial to Blomkvist’s investigation. Salander is slightly autistic but a brilliant computer hacker who plays a crucial role in uncovering Harriet’s mystery.
Parallels between Blomkvist and Larsson are seen in the Vanger family’s Nazi past — three of his brothers were Nazis. But Larsson’s other great preoccupation (as I did, you are bound to read up on Larsson as you read the novel) was violence against women, and the horrors that Blomkvist unearths during his investigation originate in misogyny as much as in fascism. It’s not hard to see why Larsson invented Salander — she is proof that a woman can survive the most dreadful abuse. A theme a lot of us can relate to.
I found out that this book is the latest in a tradition of Swedish fiction begun in the 1960s by Maj Stowall and Per Wahloo in their Martin Beck series, and continued by Henning Mankell. Dragon Tattoo is in the same vein as two other recent Swedish books: Paradise by Liza Marklund, which covers similar themes of investigative journalism and racist violence against women (particularly immigrants), and Asa Larsson’s Sun Storm, a story about a young woman unable to function in society after being ostracised by her family and community for her rebellion.
It is no wonder Europe has gone wild over Blomkvist. It has sold 5 million copies worldwide — in Denmark, Dragon Tattoo has sold more copies than any book except the Bible. I really wish Larsson catches up with God.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
AUTHOR: Stieg Larsson
PAGES: vi + 554