Out of little more than sheer curiosity, I finally picked up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Despite my biases – I tend to avoid books that “go viral,” however unfair that might be to the book – I’m glad I did. Not that it gave me any insight into why, exactly, the trilogy is so ridiculously popular, but because it was an intelligent, well-written, incredibly well-thought-out mystery – something sadly quite rare in the post-Agatha-Christie world of the mystery novel.
But Larsson has succeeded in repurposing Christie’s formula in the modern world, combining family drama, murder, conspiracy, politics and journalism in a complex whodunit.
Set in modern-day Sweden, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo begins with the story of Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist recently convicted of libel. With his life crumbling around him, he is invited to the home of Henrik Vanger, an aging millionaire with money to spend and a mystery to solve, and offered a two-part job: write the scandalous history of the Vanger family, in all its infinite jealousies, rages, and spats; and solve the mystery of the disappearance of Henrik’s neice – in 1966.
I can’t go much farther into the plot without giving too much away, as the complexities of Larsson’s narrative weave together inextricably. Suffice it to say that murder is discovered, or uncovered, or re-discovered; security companies are brought in; a street-tough girl becomes an ace researcher; and Blomkvist finds himself smack dab in the middle of his own whodunit – trying to solve Harriet’s disappearance amidst a family of corruption, insanity and rage, while avoiding threats to himself and his partner as they start to ask the wrong – or maybe the right – questions.
Larsson’s writing is smart and engaging, and he uses setting to his full advantage. There is no doubt that the novel is set in Sweden – and not just because all of the characters have strange names. The setting comes to life on the page, with vivid descriptions of place and atmosphere, whether it be an upscale loft space in Stockholm or a tiny fishing village in Hedestad.
To say that the novel is nothing more than an adaptation of the classic mystery scene is to understate the uniqueness of Larsson's creation. Yes, Larsson draws on recognizable elements of the classic whodunit - lists of suspects narrowed by the list of people trapped on an island during Harriet's disappearance, for example - but deftly combines these tactics with the suspense and intrigue of a modern murder mystery, incorporating corporate conspiracies and disfunctional families, bureaucratic iniquities and journalistic integrity in one sweeping story.
Bottom line: Looking for an intelligent take on the murder mystery recipe? Looking for suspense that doesn’t involve the FBI? Looking for a family saga with intrigue and secrets? Larsson’s novel will deliver. Be prepared to flip back to the family tree at least once a chapter, and brace yourself for some violent scenes, but as long as you have the patience and the stomach for both, you will find yourself caught up in the story, pulled into a vivid Sweden and a truly engaging, if dysfunctional, family history mystery.
Next in this trilogy:
The Girl Who Played with Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest