The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Viking, 2008.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been settled on the best-seller list for a while, and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire is now also riding high. A third entry that will complete the trilogy is waiting down the road. There has been a lot of hype around this series and I thought I would give the first book a try.
At 465 pages, it is not a quick read. I enjoyed the first couple of hundred pages. Two main characters are introduced. Mikael Blomkvist is a crusading journalist who has run into trouble. His exposé of a powerful industrialist has resulted in a charge of libel and a court challenge ends in Blomkvist’s conviction. He and his business partner agree that Blomkvist must keep a low profile for a time and he takes a leave from his position at their magazine, Millennium. Just when he is in need of a new project, retired industrialist Henrik Vanger approaches him with a proposition. If Blomkvist will come to Vanger’s small hometown and work for him for a year, Vanger will help Blomkvist with information he holds about his arch rival. The project Vanger has in mind is researching the mysterious disappearance of his beloved 16-year-old grand-niece, who disappeared suddenly and inexplicably one day 30 years ago. Blomkvist accepts and is soon researching the family background in the small, scenic village. He is subsequently joined by the title character, Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed and socially maladjusted outsider, who is also a superhacker with a photographic memory.
The setting in a northern town is inviting, the writing is engaging and the large cast of supporting characters is interesting. The trouble comes about halfway through the book, when it develops that there is a serial murderer on the loose, and the book drops into the ranks of your average thriller, complete with a predictable sadistic-misogynous-killer-disguised-as-nice-boy-next-door-while-he-rapes-and-tortures-women-in-his-specially-constructed-basement-torture-chamber villain. I was disappointed with this main story line. After the villain is caught, the book continues for another 70 pages while our heros, Blomkvist and Salander, bring the bad industrialist to heal. I liked this final wrap-up.
I found the graphic depiction of savage, misogynous attacks featured in the book very disturbing. And it is not just the serial murderer involved. Early on, Salander is attacked by a social worker. The inclusion of this detail has no bearing on the immediate story, and while it may lead into a later storyline in a sequel, it seemed to be included here simply to titillate, a voyeuristic experience to be enjoyed even as you tsk tsk and peek through your fingers. And then there are the sexual exploits of Blomkvist himself. He has a long-term relationship with his business partner. They can’t commit to each other, however, because that would ruin the relationship. Okay, that’s mature. When he gets to the little town, Blomkvist quickly becomes involved with one of the Vanger family members. When she breaks things off because she doesn’t want to have a fling with someone who has no commitment to the long term, Blomkvist is very understanding. Not a problem! He happily walks away from her. Then, when Salander, half his age and clearly an emotional basket case, suggests they sleep together, Blomkvist happily draws back the sheet and invites her to jump in! Blomkvist’s own daughter makes a brief appearance. He has the most shallow father/daughter relationship imaginable with her.
I found this casual use and abuse of women very troublesome. Yet, most reviews I read of the book don’t even mention this aspect of the story. Could that be because such events are so commonplace in society? Certainly you don’t have to look far to find cases of woman disappearing from fringe elements of society without it making scarcely a ripple. The case of Robert Pickton springs immediately to mind. In recent news, Phillip Garrido was able to hold a young woman hostage in his backyard for 18 years with neighbours living just a few yards away. I found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be a sad reflection of society’s continuing acceptance of women as second-rate citizens.