Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2008

Salander looked through the door to the living room at Blomkvist pulling out CDs and taking books off the bookshelf. He had just found a brown pill bottle that was missing its label, and he was holding it up to the light. He was about to unscrew the top, so she reached out and took the bottle from him. She went back to the kitchen and sat down on a chair, massaging her forehead until he joined her.

"The rules are simple," she said. "Nothing that you discuss with me or with Armansky will be shared with anyone at all. There will be a contract which states that Milton Security pledges confidentiality. I want to know what the job is about before I decide whether I want to work for you or not. That also means that I agree to keep to myself everything you tell me, whether I take the job or not, provided that you're not conducting any sort of serious criminal activity. In which case, I'll report it to Dragan, who in turn will report it to the police."

"Fine." He hesitated. "Armansky may not be completely aware of what I want to hire you for. . ."

"Some historical research, he said."

"Well, yes, that's right. I want you to help me identify a murderer."
---- (page 365)

I tend to get annoyed when everyone jumps on a cultural bandwagon, and then begins acting as if this one song, or TV show, or movie, or book, is the only one of its kind ever created. This kind of mania often leads to a kind of "Emperor has no clothes" situation, where everyone who's a critic or who considers themselves cultured has to pretend to like a certain thing, like Glee or gangsta rap or The Social Network. Too often, the object of everyone's adoration isn't very good, or at least isn't as good as it's cracked up to be (there are of course exceptions to this rule, like the Harry Potter series). For some time now, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has been treated like it's the first series of mystery novels ever written and Lisbeth Salander is the most original character ever put to paper. I honestly expected The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be less than its inflated reputation; maybe I even harbored a snobbish desire to scoff at something everything else was excited about.

I was wrong. They were right. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very, very good, fabulous even. And Lisbeth Salander is indeed one of the most uniquely riveting characters I've met in a while.

Tattoo is at heart a very old-fashioned murder mystery, but done in a truly original way. The plot concerns the Vanger family, a very old and wealthy clan of Swedish industrialists, whose checkered past includes Nazism, corruption and incessant infighting. Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a seemingly innocent teenage girl, vanished during the annual family meeting on the Vanger's northern island. Not a trace of Harriet was ever found, and her uncle, family patriarch Henrik, has devoted most of the ensuing years to uncovering the truth. He is convinced that his niece was murdered by a family member, who continues to taunt him by sending him flowers--Harriet's traditional gift--every year on his birthday.

As a last resort, Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced financial journalist convicted of libel, to solve the mystery over the course of one year. Blomkvist is at first skeptical that any crime has been committed, but he enlists Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, emotionally unhealthy young hacker, to help him track down a cunning and twisted killer. As the pair dig into the Vanger family history, they uncover secrets, corruption and a blood-drenched trail that hints at an evil far greater than the murder of one girl.

This is a novel that delivers hugely on several levels. It's as ingenious and finely-plotted as any mystery I've read this year, as well as bone-chillingly scary and, by at its climax, utterly thrilling. But as good as the plot is, the characters are even better. Throw in the exotic and finely evoked sense of place and Larsson's unique pacing and rhythm, and you have the makings of a real modern classic.

Originally written in Swedish, the novel was translated into English by Reg Keeland, and it seems to have been a smooth translation. You can tell that it's a translation; there's the occasional word or sentence that seems awkward or somehow uncomfortable, but for the most part it doesn't detract from the book at all. The unusual rhythm is part of what makes the novel so interesting. Larsson has an odd style, both leisurely and compulsive. He has no qualms at slowing the story down to deliver a large chunk of exposition on Swedish business or guardianship laws. This is the kind of thing that I usually get annoyed at, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work for Larsson. The information dumps that occur here and there usually work for the story, and the slower pace gives the central mystery more depth and gives the characters more time to develop.

The plot is indeed a gorgeous thing, twisted and complex and perfectly executed. A mystery narrative this good is extremely rare and incredibly difficult. Larsson infuses the story with melancholy and loss; the question of what happened on that day has settled over Hedeby Island like a blanket. The mystery is not just a dry intellectual exercise: it has palpable influence over the present. Larsson lets us feel the frustration of the investigation, as Blomkvist spends long hours trying to make even a small amount of headway. There is a great deal of sifting through old documents, searching for old pictures, hunting through files for the smallest clue. It sounds dull, but it's much more realistic than our heroes immediately finding huge leads in a forty-year old cold case. When the breakthroughs finally begin to come, Larsson completely avoids the classic mystery-novel fumble (the mid-book tangle of clues and suspects) and instead gives us a logical puzzle that twists every time we think we have a handle on it. The double-pronged solution is brilliant, and the confrontation with the book's main villain is incredibly intense and chilling--like, try not to hyperventilate while reading a book, intense and chilling.

But the plot is still window dressing, because it's the characters that make the novel such a success. Although Salander gets all the attention, Blomkvist is a finely drawn protagonist. Erudite, intelligent, reserved in word and action, we spend a lot of time in Blomkvist's head and yet we learn more about him from the narration of other characters. He could have been simply the straight man to Lisbeth's unusual personality, but he's a lot more complex than that. The minor characters are uniformly interesting, from the personable, but hardened, Henrik Vanger to the emotionally unstable Cecilia Vanger to Blomkvist's fellow editor and part-time lover, Erika Berger. Larsson likes a meaty characterization and there's hardly a single figure in the book without a somewhat memorable personality; even Frode, the dutiful family lawyer, has some layers.

It's Lisbeth's book, though, and she owns it. She really is one of the strangest characters I've ever read about, and certainly one of the most fascinating. The quintessential loner, Lisbeth is an incredibly gifted researcher and computer hacker who has seemingly no interest in human contact. Sometimes unresponsive to the point of catatonia, sometimes eloquent and well-spoken, Salander is capable of extreme violence and fits of rage, which she hides behind a frosty exterior. Seemingly bisexual, possibly autistic and lacking any social skills, she is an outcast from society, not dependant on anyone anyone except herself and her legal guardian. Lisbeth is a cipher, a conundrum, a mystery to everyone around her. She comes very close to the edge of being an outright antihero, but she seems to function within her own moral guidelines. Larsson does not bring Salander into the main story until more than halfway through the novel; instead, we are privy to a highly unpleasant episode in her life that functions as a lengthy subplot.

Salander's horrific rape by her legal guardian and subsequent revenge is by now the book's most famous sequence (people are inevitably drawn to anything that's extremely violent or sexual). It's a truly horrifying turn of events, described in matter-of-fact terms by Larsson, who, to his credit, mostly resists reveling in the salaciousness of the storyline. The scene is still rather difficult to read, and it's hard to say whether it was truly necessary or not. I give Larsson credit for not showing too much detail, as that would have come off as nasty and James Patterson-esque. Lisbeth's vengeance is powerful and satisfying, although almost as brutal as the rape. The whole story exists mostly to establish Lisbeth as a character (and to further illuminate the novel's theme of violence against women), and this it certainly does, in a memorably visceral way. Although Lisbeth is angry and violated by the rape, she does not seem to regard it as something very much out of the ordinary, and that may be the most chilling part of the whole affair. Her backstory, when it comes, will be inevitably traumatic.

But it's not Salander's rage that is the heart of the book, it's her slowly developing quasi-romantic relationship with Blomkvist. Theirs is a pairing that is almost immediately a classic dynamic, like Holmes and Watson, but, um, different. Very different. The way that Blomkvist gradually attempts to forge a friendship with Lisbeth, and her push-pull response, is a slightly mesmerizing bit of character work, and indicative of Larsson's excellent character work. It's a smart move to keep the two central characters apart for so much of the book, because by the time they finally meet, both have been clearly established. The novel's two sequels will undoubtedly deepen their relationship, judging by the rather heartbreaking little vignette that ends the novel. The love triangle between Blomkvist, Salander and Berger should be highly interesting, especially considering the extreme contrast between the two women.

If I have a quibble with the book, it's the subplot regarding Blomkvist's war with a corrupt Swedish industrialist, which is really only important at the very beginning and the very end. At the end of the novel, Larsson lovingly devotes a huge segment to the conclusion of the story, ignoring the fact that the mystery plot wrapped up fifty pages ago. It's a jarring leap from a dark, grisly serial-killer thriller to a complex account of financial crime and Swedish journalism. It's not a bad storyline by any means, just misplaced, and it makes the book's ending feel long and anticlimactic. The storyline has a distinct whiff of fantasy wish-fulfillment about it: Larsson was a crusading financial journalist himself, and it's easy to imagine that the whole plot is a thinly disguised version of real events. In any case, it's not the book's high point and it's a shame that it couldn't have been moved to one of the sequels or dealt with before the true climax.

That (fairly small) problem aside, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one wonderful book. Oddly enough, what it reminded me of was the Harry Potter series. Not in style, content or tone, but in the sense of being totally swept up in a near-perfect marriage of plot and character. This is a book that combines the appeal of the fast-paced thriller and the big, climb-in-and-live saga. It's a good thing that are two more books to develop Blomkvist and Salander, because they promise to become an iconic crime-fiction pairing, and the Millennium trilogy, or its first entry, at least, may well become a classic in the genre.

NEXT UP: My "Best of 2011" post should be up soon, and I'm currently reading Lev Grossman's critically acclaimed fantasy novel, The Magicians.

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