CBR Bingo entry: And so it begins. And BINGO was his name-o!
I originally considered reading this novel for the CBR Bingo square “The book was better?” because I have seen both the American and Swedish versions of the film. In fact, I saw them both on the same day. My husband and I went to see the 2011 Hollywood production starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara and appreciated it, so we decided to come home and watch the original Swedish version on Netflix. Because nothing follows up two and a half hours of murder, rape, and religious depravity like two and a half hours of murder, rape, and religious depravity with subtitles. That was sort of a dark afternoon.
In the end, though, I decided to count this review towards the “And so it begins” square, and I’m happy to report that I’m looking forward to continuing the series. One of the unsung gifts of a skilled author is the demonstration of restraint. That may sound like an odd compliment, but I appreciate an author who can let a powerful story unfold without overemphasis and without excessive emotional manipulation. For the most part, Larsson succeeds at this, although the original Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women, is rather too on the nose. Whether Larsson’s skillful story-telling is the result of his journalism background or an exceptionally adept translator, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just the result of his being Swedish.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comprises several interwoven stories. First is the story of Mikael Blomkvist, journalist and co-publisher of a political magazine, who is sentenced to three months in prison for libeling a wealthy businessman named Wennerström. For an American reader, this might seem odd, because libel laws just don’t work the same way here in the U.S. that they do in most other places.
While Blomkvist is laying low and recovering from this potentially career-ending scandal, he is approached by Henrik Vanger, a retired CEO of a prominent corporation, who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his grandniece Harriet. Harriet disappeared from a family function on Hedebey Island (a fictional location) while the island was cut off from the mainland, and Vanger believes a member of his family murdered her. He offers Blomkvist not only a generous salary and a place to hang where he can be out of the spotlight for awhile, but, if Blomkvist succeeds in discovering Harriet’s killer, Vanger will provide dirt on Wennerström that will put Blomkvist and his magazine back on top. This is indeed a tempting offer for Blomkvist. Where else would he be able to live for a year away from the public eye?
Beds, check; meatballs, check. Ok, we’re set until Spring thaw.
The final player in this 3-pronged story is Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant investigator and computer hacker who is so deeply troubled that the state considers her legally incompetent, which puts her under the authority of a state-assigned guardian. Lisbeth is originally commissioned to look into Blomkvist’s background for Vanger, but she later teams with the subject of her investigation to help him catch a murderer, a “killer of women.”
The novel’s supporting cast consists of Vanger’s extended family, the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley. Okay, they aren’t all evil, but you definitely get the idea that Harriet was the Marilyn Munster of that family. Between the Nazis, the drunks, and the sexually repressed, somewhere in the group exists an animal mutilator.
I did not see this plot twist coming.
The mystery of Harriet’s disappearance is at the heart of the novel, both by providing a classic “locked-room” mystery (in this case, the locked room being the island) and by serving as a microcosm of the threats that women face. Larsson is up front about sexual assault being a key theme in the novel: each of the novel’s four parts begins with a fact about violence or sexual assault directed at women in Sweden. As I write that, I wonder whether I’m contradicting my earlier claim about Larsson being “restrained” in his writing, but I don’t think so. He may not be subtle about his purpose, but he is dispassionate in his descriptions. When he recounts a rape, for example, he doesn’t dwell on the details for cheap emotional points; the scene is brief; the emotional toll is obvious in the characters’ subsequent actions. When a killer recounts his deeds, the reality is all the more chilling for the matter-of-fact manner of his confession.
Overall, I found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be a fantastic read, a combination of page-turning tension and thoughtful social commentary. Nevertheless, I have two small-ish complaints: first, the denouement goes on much longer than I would have liked. While the stakes around the magazine may be high, the emotional stakes around the Harriet mystery and physical danger to the protagonists are resolved a good 100 pages before the novel ends. After the release of that tension, the magazine’s survival just isn’t as interesting. Second, Larsson missteps in Lisbeth’s feelings toward Blomkvist. For someone as physically and emotionally abused as Lisbeth (and let’s face it, she resorts to revenge that, on paper, makes us cheer, but if we ever met her in real life we’d all back away very slowly), she trusts Blomkvist too easily, too completely. I just didn’t buy her attachment to him. And if she did feel that way, I wish she would have told him. Maybe, you know, she could have sung him a song, like:
IKEA joke, Swedish chef joke, ABBA joke. And that’s a wrap!