Armansky’s star researcher was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle. On those occasions when she had been wearing a tank top, Armansky also saw that she had a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looks as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers. – from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, page 32 –
Mikael Blomkvist is journalist who finds himself convicted in a libel case and facing the potential demise of his magazine along with a jail sentence. So when Henrik Vanger, an aging businessman, offers Mikael a job to uncover the mystery of young Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, he decides to take it. Harriet (Henrik’s niece) disappeared in the 1960s, when she was just 16 years old and now (forty years later) no trace of her has ever been uncovered. Henrik Vanger is convinced someone in the Vanger family murdered the young girl, and he wants to know how and who. In an effort to solve the mystery, Mikael begins to research the dysfunctional Vanger family and eventually seeks the help of a research assistant named Lisbeth Salander – an odd, antisocial 24 year old whose primary skill is hacking into seemingly secure computer systems and unearthing information about just about anyone.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two story lines. The first is the mystery of Harriet Vanger; the second is that of financial intrigue and fraud involving a huge Swedish corporation. Stieg Larsson melds these two plots through the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.
I had mixed feelings about this novel. I must admit, I was expecting to love it due to all the positive buzz. Instead, I found myself shifting back and forth from admiration to criticism. Larsson spends a good quarter of the book setting up the characters and plot, a process that at times dragged for me. Once Blomkvist gets to the Vanger compound, the story picks up and becomes more interesting. The members of the Vanger family are mostly despicable, dysfunctional characters and their faults include a propensity towards violence, Nazi activities, incest and domestic violence. Even Henrik Vanger, who is arguably one of the “good guys” lacks ethical fortitude and is not above lying to get what he wants. There were moments when I wanted to put the book down and go take a shower after spending an hour with these characters.
Another negative for me was the relationship which develops between Lisbeth and Mikael. Mikael is nearly twice Lisbeth’s age, and although she has a tough exterior, she also has a fragility which makes her vulnerable. I found the idea that a sexual relationship would develop between them to be mostly unbelievable, and actually a bit distasteful.
Once the mystery is solved, the novel takes an unexpected turn in terms of the resolution of the case – one I found shocking and disappointing. I can’t tell you more without ruining the plot, but suffice it to say that the protection of business interests takes priority over any moral or legal responsibilities … something I found hard to stomach given the role Mikael has as an investigative reporter.
Despite these rather strong criticisms of the novel, I did find some strengths which kept me reading. The financial intrigue was the strongest element in the book for me. In fact, had Larsson just written his book around this plot, it would have been a successful novel. Lisbeth drives this part of the story, and it is her character which redeems the book.
Lisbeth is a damaged individual who has had her share of tragedy and trauma. She is mostly asocial, but brilliant. Her ability to take care of herself in a dark and dangerous world belies her fragile sense of self. I found her sad. At times I wanted to take her home and fix her. She is a sympathetic, complex character who draws the reader to her. It is because of Lisbeth that I would read the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I care about her. I want to know what happens to her.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a raw, visceral novel. Larsson’s matter-of-fact way of describing the violence (mostly of a sexual nature) made the acts more disturbing than had he been more dramatic. Readers who have experienced sexual assault in their lives may find this novel one to be avoided. On the other hand, Larsson’s character development is above reproach, and the sections which dealt with the convoluted financial plot were intense and engaging.
So how do I rate this book which left me feeling ambivalent? I had more reservations about it than accolades, so even though I will read the sequel to find out what happens to Lisbeth, I finally decided the book deserved an average rating.