- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Books"
I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not because I was eager to read it, but because I’d run out of reading material one weekend and didn’t want to make a run to the bookstore, and it was there in the grocery store rack. I expected to hate it, as the result of an elementary chain of reasoning—it was written by a Swede. Swedes, generally, are Socialists and atheists. Therefore, anything written by a Swede is likely to offend me. When I saw that it was a mystery involving a family of industrialists, that conclusion seemed self-evident.
I stated in the Comments on Andrew Klavan’s review (he didn’t like it a lot) that I had a bet with myself that the most conservative, religious character in the book would prove to be the murderer.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I was wrong. I feel morally obligated to post that for the record.
Mikael (odd name for a Swede; it’s usually spelled Mikkel) Blomkvist is a journalist and part owner of a crusading business magazine, Millennium. When we meet him the second time in the book (after a short prologue) he’s just been sentenced to a fine and jail time for publishing a libelous story about Hans-Erik Wennerström, a prominent businessman and personal enemy. While waiting to serve his sentence (the prisons in Sweden have waiting lists), he is contacted by Henrik Vanger, patriarch of a prominent business family.
Vanger wants him to write a history of his family. But he also has a secret assignment—that Mikael should investigate the mysterious disappearance of his niece, more than forty years ago. He offers a ridiculously high fee for the job, and something that tempts Blomkvist even more—the real goods on Hans-Erik Wennerström. Feeling obligated to cut his ties to his magazine for the time being, Mikael has nothing else to do, and is too intrigued to refuse.
He moves to a cottage in Hedeby, the island home of the Vangers who are, all in all, a pretty scaly bunch. Two of Henrik’s brothers were prominent Swedish Nazis in their youth, and only a couple family members show Mikael anything but hostility. But he sets about his research undismayed, and eventually—to his own surprise—discovers clues no one ever found before.
This brings him into alliance with the other main character, Lisbeth Salander, a researcher and computer geek. I was prepared to dislike Lisbeth, purely on the basis of her goth style, but she turns out to be a sympathetic character in many ways—especially to someone who, like me, suffers with a social disorder. Mikael diagnoses her as an Asperger’s case. She’s brilliant in her work, but so socially handicapped that she’s under the care of a government guardian.
Oddly enough, Lisbeth is the character in the book whom a traditional moralist can most identify with (in a skewed sort of way). While Mikael is all about journalistic integrity and postmodern relativism, Lisbeth is fiercely moralistic. Not in the Judeo-Christian way, however, but in a natural law sort of way. Instead of going through accepted government channels to deal with people who injure her, she finds ways to take her own revenge—ruthlessly and without pity. Mikael’s view of sexual morality is typically Swedish—sex is a form of recreation in which men and women participate, with no moral obligation implied unless they wish it. The only taboos are against incest and intra-office affairs (though he routinely violates the latter). Lisbeth, however, though hardly chaste, does instinctively tie sex to love and commitment, and is hurt when a lover plays the field.
And since there are decent businessmen in the book, and the villain was not the sort of person I expected, I am happy to report I was pleasantly surprised, all in all.
I may be reading more into the story than the author intends, but it seems to me Larsson is pretty comprehensive in his questioning of all aspects of Swedish culture and politics, from both ends of the political and cultural spectrum.
I was also impressed, as a practitioner myself, by the quality of the translation. Here’s a line I marked because its audacity pleased me: “Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.”
Any translator with the nerve to use the word “gallimaufry” has my awed respect.
The book was too long. There’s a Lord of the Rings aspect to it, where the reader says, “What’s this? We’ve already seen the climax; what’s all the rest of this about?” I won’t say the book dragged—it kept my interest all through. But it needn’t have been 644 pages.
Cautions about language and adult subject matter apply. But I recommend it for grown-ups.