'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson
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The late Stieg Larsson's first novel is a locked-room (really, locked-island) mystery in a family chronicle that expands to become an expose of international financial corruption and the problems of Swedish society.
It's a big, intricately plotted, darkly humorous work, rich with ironies, quirky but believable characters and a literary playfulness that only a master of the genre and its history could bring off.
A wealthy, dying CEO, Henrik Vanger, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist whose professional reputation plunged when he lost a libel suit, to investigate a very cold case:
By Stieg Larssonbr>Knop ($24.95)
Who in his family killed his grandniece, Harriet Vanger, on their island home north of Stockholm on Sept. 24, 1966?
Vanger promises Blomkvist tons of money and help getting back at the man who sued him if he takes the case.
Blomkvist then hires Lisabeth Salander, a 24-year-old tattooed girl and extremely thorough freelance investigator who is a brilliant computer hacker, to help with the case. But he has no idea what he is getting.
While Blomkvist interviews and becomes entangled with Harriet's relatives, all of whom are tied to the corporation, Salander does the research and some extraordinary hacking.
Because there are many characters and the situation is complex, the narrative begins slowly, but Larsson keeps it interesting as the action accelerates to its strange and disturbing conclusion.
But the strongest parts of the novel are the characters and the dark wit that emerges from the complex situations.
Larsson's best creations are Blomkvist and Salander. The journalist is a veteran in matters of politics and love. He's bright, attractive and tolerant with a wry view of the world, unhinged a bit by his professional blunder and often finds himself in gray areas.
Declared mentally incompetent, Salander is misunderstood and abused by school and social welfare authorities. She is a lonely, physically immature girl, but uses her extraordinary intelligence to support herself and to take revenge on those who have wronged her or those she cares about.
Larsson foregrounds the moral and ethical ambiguities of the investigators as well as the innocence or guilt of his characters.
Swedish crime writers must spend their long winters reading the great old and contemporary masters of the form. This novel alludes to many fine books and writers.
There's a bit of Sherlock Holmes in Salander and something of Watson in Blomkvist. The minor characters and the crime itself would seem quite familiar to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose portraits of the corruption and amorality of the "big rich" are certainly echoed here.
And the larger social criticism of Swedish social and political institutions, as well as Larsson's play with the locked-room form, certainly echoes the great Swedish police procedurals by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is as good as anything they wrote. Larsson, who died in 2004, wrote two more novels in this series, and Knopf promises to publish both of them. We can be thankful for that.
First Published September 21, 2008 12:00 am