The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson’s first murder mystery has been a smash hit throughout Europe since its 2005 publication in the author’s native Sweden, and has now become a bestseller in the U.S. as well. But the bitter twist in Larsson’s success story is that he didn’t live to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo published: he died of a heart attack just after he delivered the manuscripts for this book and the two that follow. When the most shocking corpse in the drawing room turns out to be the 50-year-old author’s, the thrills of crime fiction can take a melancholy turn. But let’s try, for the moment, to evaluate Larsson’s novel apart from its ill-fated provenance. What is it that’s generating so much enthusiasm from a gobsmacked international audience?

The eccentric sidekick is nearly as familiar a genre convention as the lonely private eye, and Larsson, who was an eager student of the canon, dreamed up a fairly irresistible one. She is Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo; and although she doesn’t meet her partner-in-crime-solving until more than halfway through the novel, the reader connects with her right away. In fact, the book sprang to life for me at a precise moment on page 32 with the introduction of Salander, a goth wild child and a delightfully unlikely heroine.

“She was the very quintessence of difficult,” thinks Salander’s boss at the staid private-security firm where she works as a researcher. Whip-thin, abundantly tattooed and pierced, her dyed hair “as short as a fuse,” Salander skulks through the corridors like a feral club kid. She has a gift for annoying the other employees, some of whom suspect she might be retarded. In fact Salander, who is 24 years old but looks 14, is an investigative savant, a high school dropout with freakishly superior computer skills who refuses to reveal her information sources and whose work methods are, to say the least, unorthodox.

One of the people Salander has recently investigated is Mikael Blomkvist, a well-known financial reporter and part owner of a muckraking magazine called Millennium . According to her report, Blomkvist is “a public person with few secrets and not very much to hide.” Yet readers will find him to be a multi-dimensional and urgent figure, driven by an angry social conscience to expose the unchecked corruption that’s rotting the top tiers of Swedish high finance. And he’s just as angry about the cowardice of some of his journalist colleagues, who treat CEOs like rock stars and neglect to go after “the sharks who created interest crises and speculated away the savings of small investors.” Moody, droll, and often surprisingly gentle, Blomkvist is not the only journalist-turned-sleuth in the mystery world — other contemporary crime novels, by writers like Denise Mina, Denise Hamilton, Val McDermid, and Liza Marklund, feature reporters as protagonists — but he is certainly one of the most engaging.

Both Blomkvist and the magazine are on the verge of bankruptcy after his humiliating defeat in a libel case, brought against him by a powerful industrialist named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Needing time to lick his wounds, Blomkvist decides to accept an offer to spend a year looking into an unsolved mystery that occurred 40 years ago on an island near a small industrial town called Hedestad, three hours north of Stockholm.

The offer comes from Henrik Vanger, octogenarian patriarch of a once-renowned family corporation whose influence is on the wane. What haunts the old man is the long-ago disappearance of his beloved grandniece, Harriet, when she a teenager.

Convinced she was murdered, Vanger dangles two incentives in front of Blomkvist to persuade him to re-investigate this very cold case: a large sum of money, and some irreparably damaging information about his vengeful enemy Wennerström.

The Vanger family, as Blomkvist quickly learns, is a large, contentious clan whose members mostly detest one another. Their closets are crammed with skeletons, including Nazi party affiliations, domestic-violence incidents, and an alcohol-related drowning. Many of them lived on or near the family’s island compound at the time of Harriet’s disappearance in 1966 and still live there today. What made Harriet’s vanishing so confounding was that it occurred when the island was closed off by a dramatic oil-truck accident on the single bridge into Hedestad, making it, as Blomkvist notes in a nod to the classic whodunit writer Dorothy Sayers, “a sort of locked-room mystery in island format.” Though search parties repeatedly explored every inch of the island and coastline, no trace of the girl was ever found.

As soon as Blomkvist manages to turn up some new evidence, Salander is brought in by her security firm to be his research assistant, and up ratchets the action: the cold case turns hot, the chilly northern landscape goes from blanc to noir, and the Vanger family secrets begin to tumble. As they try to make sense of a situation that now threatens their lives, Salander and Blomkvist make a most unlikely duo — the methodical journalist and the unscrupulous hacker, the social conscience and the antisocial anarchist, the saddened older warrior and the furious young hellcat — but their partnership, in its peculiarity, is all the charm and fire of this novel.

As a first-time crime novelist, Larsson was smart enough to figure out that much success depends on an artful juggle between giving information about his protagonists and withholding it. He plays this game well, offering tantalizing hints about, say, Salander’s childhood or Blomkvist’s failed marriage. The crucial puzzle in any first-rate novel, as Larsson understood, is the puzzle of human nature, and it’s the richness of that mystery, more than the intricacies of its plot or the sophistication of its milieu, that powers this book.