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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Posted on 29th June 2009. No Comment

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo makes up the first part of the Millennium Trilogy by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, and the books are a publisher’s dream. Three million copies have been sold in Sweden alone – which if Wikipedia and my mathematics are correct – means that nearly one in every three Swedes owns a copy. Over twelve million have been sold in all worldwide, and already a film has been made of the first novel, which is now showing at Cannes.
All of this is made remarkable by two things – firstly the fact that Stieg Larsson only completed his trilogy in 2004 (the first book being set in 2002) and turned over the manuscripts to his publisher before dying unexpectedly later that year from a heart attack in Stockholm, before his books became the critical and commercial success they are today. And secondly, Larsson has created not just successful thrillers, but intelligent thrillers, and intelligent thrillers populated by eccentric Swedish characters which make sense and are likeable, as well as your usual brooding psychopaths.
The first instalment follows many of the conventions of the genre. There is the crusading investigative journalist, Mikhael Blomkvist, an underdog screwed over by the corporate world and with requisite character flaws (broken marriage, daughter he hardly sees), but still lovable and talented enough to be redeemable. Then there is the beautiful young woman with a devastating intelligence, Lisbeth Salander, who works for a security firm and becomes Mikhael’s partner and friend, deploying her useful sideline in computer hacking. Where Larsson’s work comes into its own is where he skilfully paints the complicated backstory of this unusual pairing and the layered storylines which weave in and out of each other throughout.
Blomkvist starts the novel as so anti-heroic for a crime novel he is actually convicted of a crime and sent to prison to serve a short sentence (alright so its libel and its a nice progressive Swedish prison). Yet he knows the prominent businessman he accused is guilty. Then he is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Harriet Vanger, by her great uncle and Swedish industrialist Henrik. The cold case looks unpromising and the remote setting for both Blomkvist and the reader may not sound promising. Soon enough however a series of mysteries involving abuse, murder, disappearances, animal sacrifice and, err, Swedish businesses develop, bringing the work of Blomkvist and Salander closer together.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the winner of the prestigious Boeke Prize previous recipients include Yann Martel , Ian McEwan and Frank McCourt), as well as Sweden’s Glass Key Award for crime fiction. The appeal of Larsson’s work resides in the fact that so many of his characters are just utterly, delightfully weird. Salander is a borderline psychopath at times, and indeed in the novel she is under state guardianship as she moves from life in Sweden’s care system to an independent adulthood. The book is expertly paced, with Larsson avoiding the usual “And then a shot rang out….” device to end chapters. As Blomkvist points out, the initial investigation into Harriet’s disappearance in 1966 is like a classic whodunit – a rich dysfunctional family are all trapped on a remote island when she vanishes without a trace, leaving the inescapable conclusion that a relative brought her to harm – and he soon becomes embroiled in the mystery himself, looking soulful and munching on open-faced rye-bread sandwiches.
Larsson is writing from the heart in many ways. He founded the Swedish Expo Foundation, which aimed to expose racism and political extremism. He also edited the magazine Expo and was an expert on anti-democratic, Nazi organizations, often lecturing about these issues. Like his fictional hero, Larsson looks blonde and fortyish and had strong ideals and beliefs, and it isn’t hard to imagine him as an admirer of old-school investigative journalism battling the world’s injustices. In the book he is critical of state guardianship in his native Sweden, and Sweden’s extreme right wing organisations also feature. Larsson also peppers the first volume with statistics about violence towards women clearly wanting to highlight these issues in the novel that goes way beyond the complexity of your average thriller.
The sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is now available in English translation.
Jennifer Thompson

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