Stieg Larsson


"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew SEP 23, 2008)

"With the exception of Plague and a few people on the Net who, like her, devoted themselves to hacking on a professional level -- and most of them knew her only as "Wasp" and did not know who she was or where she lived -- Kalle Blomkvist was the only one who had stumbled on to her secret. He had come to her because she made a blunder that not even a twelve-year-old would commit, which only proved that her brain was being eaten by worms and that she deserved to be flogged. But instead of going crazy with rage he had hired her.

Consequently she was mildly irritated with him."

A 24-year-old computer hacker sporting an assortment of tattoos and body piercings and afflicted with Asperger Syndrome or something of the like has been under state guardianship in her native Sweden since she was thirteen. She supports herself by doing deep background investigations for Dragan Armansky, CEO and COO of Milton Security who, in turn, worries the anorexic-looking Lisbeth Salander is "the perfect victim for anyone who wished her ill." Salander may look fourteen and stubbornly shun social norms, but she possesses the inner strength of a determined survivor. She sees more than her word processor page in black and white and despises the users and abusers of this world. She won't hesitate to exact her own unique brand of retribution against small-potatoes bullies, sick predators, and corrupt magnates alike.

When she is asked to brief Herr Frode, a representative for a mysterious client, about one Mikael Blomkvist, she, with consummate thoroughness, presents a 193-page report. Financial journalist Blomkvist has just been convicted of libeling financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom and is facing a fine and three months in jail. Frode wants to know of any other career besmirchments. He's told of the defining event two decades ago when a sharp-eyed 23-year-old Mikael spied a handful of men occupying a cabin near his own and pieced together from their comings and goings that these might be the wanted bank robbers known as the Bear Gang. He called the police and they were, with much ado. nabbed. The press began calling him "Kalle" Blomkvist, after the intrepid young detective created by children's author Astrid Lindgren. Salander notes, "He hates the nickname, which is understandable. Sombody'd get a fat lip if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking on a newspaper placard." Less than ten years later, he and Erika Berger started Millennium, an independent, leftist watchdog magazine. "Berger and Blomkvist met in journalism school and have had an on-and-off relationship ever since." With the current libel judgment, the magazine is in serious danger of losing too many advertisers and could go under. Frode learns more about Blomkvist, but nothing professionally incriminating.

Blomkvist is soon summoned, through Frode, to a meeting with semi-retired industrialist Henrik Vanger whose far-flung but shrinking corporate empire is wholly family owned. Vanger has brooded for 36 years about the fate of his great niece, Harriet, who disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1966 at the age of sixteen. Every year Vanger receives a different dried and pressed flower from somewhere around the world, and he believes Harriet's killer is taunting him with these "gifts." For a year, Blomkvist is supposed to live on the island where many Vanger family members still reside and where Harriet was last seen. Under the cover story that he is writing a family history, Blomkvist is to investigate which family member might have done away with the teenager.

So, the stage is set. The reader easily guesses many pages before it happens that somehow Blomkvist and Salander will pool their talents to probe the Vanger mystery. However, although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is structured as a methodical procedural that proceeds on a generally tight trajectory; this is no humdrum, predictable novel. It is fascinating and very difficult to put down. Nor is it a without some really suspenseful and chillingly ugly scenes....

As "A Note About the Author" at the conclusion of the novel supplies, "Stieg Larsson was the editor in chief of the anti-racist magazine, Expo." He was also "[a] leading expert on anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations." In this, his first work of fiction, his interests and expertise passionately burst out. He patiently spins a complex web from strands of real and imagined history. In Larsson's novel, Blomkvist digs up early and mid-twentieth century Vanger affiliations with Sweden's fascist groups and looks for persisting extremist hate among living family members. (Sweden does in fact actively deal with these issues so important to Larsson: a check of real Swedish news as this review was being written yielded two headlines about Neo-Nazis and far-right extremists.)

The issue that most saturates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo though is that of shocking sexual violence primarily against women but not excluding men. Salander and Blomkvist both confront prima facie evidence of such crimes. Larsson, who takes his time establishing this theme in his text never wants the reader to lose sight of this topic even if it isn't floating on top at the moment so he introduces each of the book's four parts with statistics on the subject. For instance, for Part 1, he informs, "18 percent of the women of Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."

Larsson's other major constituent elements are corporate malfeasance that threatens complete collapse of stock markets and anarchistic distrust of officialdom to the point of endorsing (at least, almost) vigilantism.

Do all those charged, emotional and somewhat politicized building blocks shroud the novel in black shadows? Yes.... But Larsson's carefully calibrated tale is more than a grisly, cynical world view of his country and the modern world at large. At its core, it is an fascinating character study of a young woman who easily masters computer code but for whom human interaction is almost always more trouble than it is worth, of an investigative reporter who chooses a path of less resistance than Salander but whose humanity reaches out to many including her, and of peripheral characters that need more of their story told -- such as Erika Berger and Dragan Armansky.

The closing scene of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reinforces how firmly, if perhaps unwillingly, Lisbeth Salander has seated herself in the reader's heart. Her disappointment and disillusionment leave us with a pang of sorrow and regret and a clinging wish that she might not give up.

Fortunately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be followed by two more in the Millennium series: The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Air Castle that Blew Up. Alfred A. Knopf has committed in advance to publishing all three books in English translation. Actually, Larsson made a 200-page start on a fourth book, but sadly he succumbed to a heart attack in 2004 and his father has decided the unfinished work will remain unpublished. In Europe -- especially Sweden, Larsson's homeland -- this trilogy have been a publishing sensation and has reportedly already earned about 80 million kroner ($13 million).

Let's see whether The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will become a top seller in America too. It definitely has potential. I recommend this international bestseller to all who diligently sift new books for challenging intellectual crime thrillers, who luxuriate in immersing themselves in the ambience of a compellingly created world and memorable characters, who soak up financial and investigative minutiae as well as computer hacking tidbits, and who share in some or all of Larsson's crusades. (Translated by Reg Keeland.)

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"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte SEP 23, 2008)

Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, until his untimely death in 2004, investigated and exposed extreme right-wing and racist organizations in his country. He left behind three unpublished manuscripts, crime thrillers that he wrote for his own enjoyment. These novels were published to both immense popularity and critical acclaim in Sweden.

The first of these novels is now available in English, translated by Reg Keeland. Originally named Men who Hate Women in Swedish, it was titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it was published in the U.K., and it is now published under the same title this fall in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf.

There is a conventional protagonist, a Swedish journalist in his forties named Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist investigates and exposes financial corruption in corporations via a small news magazine, Millenium, that he edits and partly owns. At the beginning of the novel, the magazine is near collapse, and Blomkvist has been sued by one of his targets for libel and defamation. He is found guilty, fined, and sentenced to several months in prison.

As he finds his career ending, Blomkvist is handed what might turn out to be a lifesaving assignment by a rich old head of a business family named Henrik Vanger. Vanger forty years ago lost his beloved young niece from the family estate on an island. Her mysterious disappearance was probably a murder, and Vanger suspects members of his own dysfunctional family of being behind it. Vanger will help the journalist if he writes a biography of his family and investigates this cold case.

The author draws many parallels and references to British and American detective fiction, including Sue Grafton, Val McDermid, and Agatha Christie. Another whimsical touch that probably resonated in Sweden is the reference to the beloved children's story writer Astrid Lindgren, one of whose characters, the youthful detective Kalle Blomqvist, becomes an annoying nickname that journalists use for Mikael Blomkvist.

But the real star of the novel, and the source of its emotional punch, is a character the protagonist does not initially know: a young woman named Lisbeth Salander, an emotionally underdeveloped orphan who has been put into state trusteeship because of behavioral problems. Her tattooed body and her mind have seen much abuse at a tender age, and for all her punk bravado and talent at hacking computers, she is very much vulnerable, a victim both of bad people and of a well-intentioned state welfare system. Salander is a truly fresh character, modeled in some ways after another Astrid Lindgren character, Pippi Longstocking, a taboo-breaking child who revels in her own freedom.

As the characters move through various locations in Sweden, from everyday intersections in Stockholm to small, cold, remote villages in the far north, they give it a distinct sense of place. At the same time, all three of Stieg Larsson's key sources of anger, violence against women, the incompetence of investigative journalists, and virulent right-wing ideologies that still live on in Sweden, all find full expression in the novel, giving it an earnest intensity. Some of the violence is brutal, even by standards of crime fiction, the plot is stodgy in a few places and a little pat at the end, but on the whole, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is gripping and satisfying at several levels. Lisbeth Salander holds your attention and takes your heart away. (Translated by Reg Keeland.)

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 2,292 reviews

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"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 23, 2008)

How do you convince a highly successful (but down on his luck) city-loving journalist to spend a whole year living in the middle of nowhere? For one thing, you offer him a hefty renumeration. Second, you promise to deliver some juicy dirt on his nemesis at the end of the assignment. So it is that in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stockholm-based financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, partner in a magazine called Millennium, finds himself on assignment in Hedestad, a small village in the Swedish countryside.

That the village is such a contrast from vibrant Stockholm that it might as well be Ulan Bator, is beside the point. Blomkvist has just had his reputation seriously tarnished after losing a much-publicized libel case to a financial industry bigwig called Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Blomkvist's magazine is now bleeding advertisers and therefore, money. At such a time, when Henrik Vanger, the founding father of Sweden's successful Vanger Enterprises, offers Blomkvist a hefty sum of money to research and pen the Vanger family history, he jumps at the opportunity.

Picturesque Hedestad is mostly owned by the Vanger family and various members of its vast family tree occupy most of the houses on the island. As it turns out what the senior Vanger really wants is for Blomkvist to investigate the murder of his 16-year-old niece Harriet, who mysteriously disappeared from the island many years ago during a family gathering. Vanger is convinced that one or more of his family members was involved in the crime—a crime that has obsessed the man for decades. Now nearing the end of his life and with the fortunes of the Vanger enterprises on the wane, Henrik begs for closure on the one riddle that has obsessed him for so long.

It's a classic closed-room mystery in the style of Agatha Christie (or even the board game Clue!): only here, the suspects are many and all named Vanger. It takes a while for the reader to sort out the many branches of the family tree and the chart included in the book doesn't help much as you just want to figure out who killed this girl already. The Swedish author of this book, Stieg Larsson, who died before he could enjoy his fame, was a competent journalist in his own right confronting the forces of hate in his country. The book is a good conduit for causes that Larsson fought passionately against: violence against women, right-wing extremism and incompetent media. Incidentally the book (part of a trilogy) was originally labeled “Men Who Hated Women” which serves as a much more fitting title to the horrors that emerge from the book.

The titular character, the girl with the tattoos, is young Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker who has learned the hard way that the social networks in her country are severely lacking. After suffering much abuse, the mildly autistic Salander has figured out that she has to survive on her own. And survive she does. Her punk appearance and wild attitude hide a razor-sharp mind—one that eventually teams up with Blomkvist to solve the underlying mystery in the book.

As Blomkvist and Salander slowly start getting closer to the answer, the hostile residents of Hedestad start getting downright vicious and the two “detectives” have to resort to many methods just to stay alive and ahead of the game. Dragon Tattoo is the most fun during this hunt and chase and it makes for some exciting and brisk reading.

Dragon Tattoo continues on after the Harriet mystery is solved trying to explain the financial wrongdoings of Wennerstrom and thereby explaining how Blomkvist could be acquitted of the charges in the libel case. This ending of the novel is confusing and also feels out of place—it's almost as if Larsson tried to tie the loose ends up in a rush. Also, even if the reader spends a lot of time with Blomkvist, his characterization could use a little work.

Overall The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an entertaining and occasionally riveting read. The final reveal of the Harriet mystery is one most readers will not see coming and this adds to the suspense the book delivers. The essential plot is very violent and sadistic though, fully explaining the book's original title. At one point in the novel, Henrik Vanger says icily that the term “cold-blooded bastard” could be used for a good many members of his family. Little does he realize just how much of an understatement that will turn out to be. (Translated by Reg Keeland.)

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 2,292 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Random house

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Movies from books:
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Stieg LarssonStieg Larsson was born in 1954. Before his career as a writer, Stieg Larsson was mostly known for his struggle against racism and right-wing extremism. In the middle of the 1980’s he helped to start the anti-violence project “Stop the Racism.” This was followed by the founding of the Expo-foundation in 1995, where he later became the executive. From 1999 and on, he was appointed the chief editor of Expo, a magazine published by the organization Expo.

Stieg Larsson wrote the novels for The Millennium-series at night, apart from his job at the Expo magazine. He started writing in 2001 and enjoyed it so much that he didn’t make contact with a publisher until he had two finished novels and had a third one under way. In an interview short before his death, Stieg Larsson described his writing as his “pension insurance.” The three novels in the Millenium-series have become extremely popular in Sweden. The first two received awards; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by the Crime Writers of Scandinavia and The Girl Who Played With Fire by the Swedish Academy for Detective Novels.

Production for three movies based on the series began in 2008.

Larsson died in November 2004 from a heart attack. His novels were published posthumous.

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