Tangled Web UK Review February 2008
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by
hbk out January 08
Published by Quercus
Stieg Larsson's ambitious debut novel is a potent package. The first of a trilogy delivered together, and published after Larsson's sudden death aged 50, it boasts a timely over-riding theme, indicated by the book's original title, Men Who Hated Women, a remarkable and distinctive punk heroine, a fascinating portrait of some aspects of modern Sweden, and a steadily accelerating narrative of (mostly) great verve and brio.
Larsson loses no time in establishing the various strands of his novel. A framed pressed flower arrives in the post, and a retired policeman regretfully recalls its 43 predecessors and his inconclusive investigations. Investigative reporter and editor Mikael Blomkvist has had his day in court and is found guilty of libel, a result of charges against speculator Hans-Erik Wennerström that Blomqvist has finally walked away from proving. It is a verdict that could mean the end of his career, and perhaps that of Millennium, the crusading magazine that he helped to found and part-owns.
The dragon-tattooed girl of the title is "social misfit" Lisbeth Salander, memorably introduced as "a pale, anorexic young woman" with "hair short as a fuse", given to wearing, on her occasional visits to the office, ET t-shirts shirts inscribed 'I am also an alien'. But her failure to contribute to the corporate image of the security firm where she works is more than made up for in the quality of her work, as a quietly devastating personal investigator with remarkable (and almost certainly illegal) computer skills. It is through Lisbeth that Larsson's major theme, violence against women, will be pursued most effectively.
Meanwhile a temporary lifeline is extended to Blomkvist in the form of the chance to write, away from the public eye, the family history of the Vangers, an eminent family of Swedish industrialists, whilst in fact investigating the unsolved disappearance of Harriet Vanger, niece of Henrik, the Vanger Corporation's current boss, almost forty years before...
The much anticipated first meeting between Blomkvist and Salander (unknown to him she has already investigated his background) does not take place until over halfway through the book, one of the devices used by Larsson to create early tension and keep us all reading. Which is just as well. If Larsson has a fault it derives from his journalistic background, running Expo for instance, a low-circulation but influential Swedish magazine similar to the Millennium of his book, that loads the text with quite a lot of excessive if persuasive detail, even an extraneous character or plot-line here and there. Meanwhile his devotion to detective fiction, particularly the classic British variety with its family trees and locked rooms, rather bogs down the early stages of Blomkvist's investigation of the Vanger family. Perhaps such problems can be explained by either a non-existent editing process or one curtailed by the tragic death of the writer.
Give Larsson his due though. The process whereby Blomkvist determines Harriet's movements on the day of her disappearance, and sets up the later stages of the novel, has a Christie-like brilliance. Overall then, this is a book of great scope and veracity, astonishing for a first novel. It is particularly well-served by Reg Keeland's intelligent and readable translation.
I look forward to the remaining books in the trilogy for several reasons. First, in matters both political and financial, that journalistic background of Larsson's, where he can curb the detail, lends the work, (and therefore Blomkvist too) great heft and weight. Another is the transfixing Lisbeth Salander. This book leaves the reader with many unanswered questions about Lisbeth, some of which I hope will be answered in the next volume in which I gather she plays an even more prominent role. In a Europe that is debating the 'death' of the private eye novel (see www.europolar.eu.com), the team Blomkvist/Salander could just become the number one exhibit in the case for the continued health of that genre.
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