Friday, March 13, 2009

A No-Spoiler Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a layered and nuanced mystery with so many different plot threads and intrigues that it's a shame to ruin any of the twists and turns. The novel opens with Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger reluctantly opening a package on his 82nd birthday. It's another anonymously-posted pressed flower, the same gift he has received every year since his beloved grand-niece Harriet disappeared back in 1966. He believes that her murderer is tormenting him.

Elsewhere, financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist is being handed down his sentence in criminal court. He has been convicted of libeling the wealthy and powerful Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, and it seems they take libel rather seriously in Sweden. It carries a steep fine and jail time. His career in shambles, Mikael is offered an unusual freelance job. Henrik Vanger wants him to move out to the country, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family. In reality, Mikael is being hired to investigate Harriet's disappearance 36 years prior--one last time with fresh eyes. Vanger has been obsessively investigating the crime for decades and has never been able to move on with his life.

As much as he doesn't want the job, Mikael is coerced into accepting the proverbial offer he can't refuse. It's a fascinating writing project, an enormous paycheck when he most needs it, and one more thing...Vanger promises to give Mikael dirt on Wennerstrom that will stick when the end of his one-year contract is up.

Where, you may be asking, is this eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo? She is Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old private investigator who enters the story gradually. She is hired by Vanger's lawyer to investigate Mikael Blomkvist before the job offer is made. After that early introduction, we follow her exploits occasionally, and it is no surprise when she eventually gets dragged further into the heart of the story. Lisbeth is a very different sort of literary character. Warm and fuzzy she's not. In fact, there seems to be something... wrong with her. But we only get tantalizing bits of information about her background, and how she has come to be in the position that she's in. Nonetheless, Lisbeth, with her many gifts and many flaws is the perfect counterpoint to nice guy Mikael. (I literally lost count of how many times he proclaimed to someone, "I want to be your friend.")

This novel had a long dénouement, as there were so many different storylines to wrap up. Naturally, there was far more to the case of Harriet, the goings-on of the Vanger family, and even the libel case with Wennerstrom than immediately meet the eye. The novel is deftly plotted, and the conclusions are deeply satisfying, all the while paving the way for the two sequels Larsson wrote before his untimely death. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been a monster bestseller in Europe, and is likely to become one here as well. It has no literary pretensions, but it's a well-written, fast-paced story with richly imagined characters. If that's your cup of tea, by all means, dive right in.

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