In 2004 an unpublished author submitted three completed manuscripts – a trilogy of crime thrillers – to a publisher in Sweden. The author also had a fourth manuscript in process and outlines for further books in a series that was intended to span ten novels. In November the same year, the author suffered from a massive heart attack and did not survive. The three completed novels were published after his death, gaining mass critical acclaim both in Sweden and all over the world. The books have been translated into multiple languages and have won several awards since their publication. The third book in the series is one of the most eagerly anticipated crime titles this summer. The books are the Millenium Trilogy. The author: Stieg Larsson.
With a background like that, I couldn’t keep my hands off this particular series despite being a little unsure what to expect. With the third novel so close to being released I had to draw myself away from the vampires for a bit and find out what I had been missing and curled up with a copy of the first book in the trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist with a passion for exposing corrupt business figures and part-owner of a magazine called Millenium. When he falls foul of anti-libel laws and is sentenced a hefty fine and a short prison sentence, he is forced to reconsider the path of his career for a while. Out of the blue, he is contacted by Harold Vanger who has a job for him. Officially, his job is to write a biography of the Vanger family’s extensive history. Unofficially, Vanger hopes he will be able to solve the mystery of his niece’s death; a death that occurred over thirty years prior. Meanwhile, by chance, he meets Lisbeth Salander, a strange misfit of a girl with the figure of a child, few social skills and a dragon tattoo…
I went into this book with some enthusiasm but the truth is that 150 pages into the text I was still waiting for the story to really grab me. I don’t know whether I’m just used to a more accelerated pace given my recent reading material but if someone had asked me whether it was good then I would have struggled to make a case to justify the hype. Then around 200 pages in, foundations already laid, the plot lurches forward at a rate of knots and never falters until the final sentence.
The plot teaser belittles the vast range of uncomfortable scenarios in this text. It is not for the feint hearted, a thriller in every sense of the word. From the Vanger Family’s dark secrets to Salander’s mysterious past, you need a strong stomach for portions of this tale. It also has a tendency to progress (and end) in directions you would not normally expect. You have to keep reading if you want to know what happens and understand the full implications.
The characters are equally unconventional. We see in Blomkvist an older man with a string of sexual encounters, separated from his daughter and waging a moral war against others in his profession. Salander is enigmatic, a genius and a misfit in equal part, with an uncompromising sense of justice that at times is as unsettling as the evil at her door. I’ve seen characters given quirky personality/physical traits in novels before, usually with the express intention of making them fix in the reader’s mind but rarely in a way that adds real value to the book. Larsson’s characters are certainly unusual and will definitely stick in mind, but they are always tackled from a point of view of what makes sense in the context of their responses and their history, with each affecting the other.
This is not the best crime fiction novel I have ever read, but it makes the top ten easily. It is bold, challenging, disturbing and extremely compelling. It lacks the literary flare of Thomas Harris’ novels, probably owing in part to the translation from Swedish to English, but it is hard to fault the meticulously constructed story. Best of all is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reads like a pre-amble for the second novel in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire; I get the impression that this is a series that will go from strength to strength.
If you like thrillers and have the stomach for the absolute darkest behaviour mankind has to offer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is for you. It takes a while to get started, but like fine wine is worth the wait.