The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Summary: A disgraced financial journalist takes on an assignment that seems impossible: solve the mystery of a teenage girl who disappeared forty years ago. Along the way, he discovers dark secrets and forms an unlikely friendship with an antisocial female computer hacker.
At its heart, "Dragon" is a locked room murder mystery. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist hired by a reclusive industrialist named Henrik Vanger to find a missing niece. Harriet Vanger vanished from his home forty years earlier, and Henrik is convinced she was murdered. The mystery grows more puzzling when he discovers that she disappeared on an island where the only bridge had been blocked by a car accident. It grows more sinister when Henrik explains he believes one of his own family killed Harriet, and has been sending him flowers every year since in a macabre birthday gift to torment him. And then Blomkvist finds evidence of a series of grisly murders somehow connected to the Vangers. I won't say any more about the mystery so it doesn't spoil it, but it's a very compelling and engrossing story.
Now the key to the novel is to understand that the mystery is a means to an end, a frame to hang the story on. Partly, the novel is about the Vanger family, one of the most ugly group of characters I've ever seen in a novel. Many of them lived on the island when Harriet disappeared and continue to do so, so Blomkvist spends time exploring and clashing with them. The Vangers tend to fall into five categories: racist, cruel, manipulative, perverted, and all of the above. As Blomkvist researches the family to find clues to Harriet's disappearance, he uncovers a foul pit of secrets and lies that is truly horrifying.
I found Blomkvist a bit of a dull character. He's strong, determined, and heroic, uncomfortably so. He's a Mary Sue, an idealized fantasy character based on the author himself, and it's kind of ridiculous at times. The only negative thing anyone can say about him is that he's TOO good. He's too attractive to women, who can't resist throwing themselves at him. He's too moral, so he gets himself in trouble fighting evil. He's too ethical, so he can't be bribed by his enemies. Women spend pages in the novel about how handsome he is, how irresistible, and what an incredible lover he is. Yada yada yada.
Without a doubt, the real star of the novel is Lizbeth Salander, the misanthropic hacker who aids Blomkvist in his quest. She's a striking character with the titular dragon tattoo, piercings, and black-and-leather outfits. She's described as being as small as a teenage girl, but with the ferocity of a grizzly bear. She's also brilliant with computers, able to access any network and find any secrets. More than all that, she's completely antisocial with a dark and mysterious past hinting at childhood trauma. I really can't say enough about how great she is.
Her hacking is actually surprisingly realistic. No furious Hollywood hacker-typing here. Most of her skill involves social engineering by stealing passwords hidden under desk blotters and exploiting security weaknesses. The only unrealistic part is her ability to download and stream the entire contents of other people's computers, which is technically possible but extremely prohibitive in real-life.
I've never really read a Swedish novel before, and this book is steeped in Swedism (if that's a word). Despite the English translation, I found myself stumbling through Swedish names for streets and towns and cities that I had no concept of. People talk about "kronors" in ways that made me go to an online currency converter to find out what the value in US dollars would be. But I found the setting very moody and atmospheric with the ferocious cold as a backdrop for the emotional coldness within the characters. Or some junk.
The only weakness of the novel is that it desperately needed some additional editing. Anyone who expected a taut mystery thriller would grow weary of the opening, where it reads more like a novel about the world of business and finance. The novel spends pages on the corruption of Swedish financial journalism, which I imagine could only be interesting to other Swedish financial journalists. It turns out to be relevant later on, but gets tedious if you don't know where it's going.
Then there are the unnecessary asides. At some points, the novel reads like an advertisement for Apple with pages devoted to the technical specs of the various Macbooks the characters use. In others, the author has an annoying habit of describing almost every meal the characters eat, which often inexplicably involves sandwiches. So if you don't mind read detailed explanations of what kind of sandwiches Blomkvist and Salander eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this is the book for you.
Oh, and I'd be remiss in saying I was a little disappointed with the final solution to the mystery. I won't spoil anything, but the book is so dense with so many characters and plotlines that I guess it was inevitable there are some loose ends. Still, I thought too much of the novel ended up being red herrings to the real culprit.
But all in all, it's a great novel with some amazing twists, haunting characters, and somber thrills.
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