Thawing a cold case in Scandinavia
Stieg Larsson’s debut crime novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” leaves you wanting more from an odd investigative duo. The good news is that this is the first of his “Millennium” trilogy -- there are two more completed books to come -- but there’s also bad news: Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 at 50 before the mysteries were published, a premature end to a budding talent.
There is a lot of buzz in Europe about these books, as there is about a whole slew of Scandinavian thrillers, and Larsson’s rising reputation has preceded U.S. publication of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” So much so that when I sat down to read at Pete’s in Larchmont Village, a young man at the next table said, “We’re reading the same book.” He held up another advance copy and said he worked at Paramount, which is considering the book for a movie.
Then, later, the tattooed receptionist at my hair salon pointed to my coffee-stained copy and said that she too had heard it was good, though she couldn’t recall where she’d heard that.
In any case, I was excited to tuck into the Nordic novel and was surprisingly disappointed by the first few chapters: They are dense with character and plot development, financial reporting mixed with umlaut-heavy names of people and places I didn’t know. Hardly an attention-grabber, I thought, and almost inexcusable in the whodunit genre.
The mystery unfolds, and the book takes off, in the fourth chapter: From there, it becomes classic parlor crime fiction with many modern twists. Mikael Blomkvist is a financial reporter and part owner of Millennium magazine, which has just lost a libel case to a powerful business tycoon, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. The journalist’s reputation is damaged, along with the magazine’s, and he is facing several months in prison when he gets a telephone call from a lawyer representing another industrialist, Henrik Vanger.
Vanger, who lives on a northern island, wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet, which happened 40 years before. The 16-year-old vanished at a time when access to the island was cut off by a traffic accident on the bridge to the mainland. The girl was the apple of his eye, and Vanger believes she was murdered by another member of the family, perhaps as a means to do him in. Vanger and a police detective have spent decades trying unsuccessfully to solve the mystery. In his 80s now, Vanger is determined to try one last time with the journalist. Blomkvist is reluctant to take on an obviously thankless job, but besides generous financial rewards that, if he stays on the case for a year, could save the magazine, Vanger also offers him a chance at redemption -- evidence to take down Wennerstrom.
Blomkvist takes leave from the magazine, in part to help restore its image, postpones his jail time for a few months and moves up to the island of Hedeby to investigate. Vanger has concocted a cover story that he hired Blomkvist to write the history of the family dynasty even though everyone knows the old man’s obsession with the lost Harriet and assumes that’s what Blomkvist is really doing. Of course, with a checkered past of Nazism and drunken death, the family is not very happy to have its story told either.
Before hiring Blomkvist, Vanger’s lawyer has had him checked out by a young woman named Lisbeth Salander, an anorexic-looking, mildly autistic ward of the court who works freelance for an investigation agency and who is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo. The 24-year-old also turns out to have a photographic memory and top-notch computer hacking skills. After seeing the thorough report she did on him, Blomkvist hires her to help him on the Harriet Vanger case.
They delve into the complicated family, which requires a chart to keep the relatives straight, and almost everyone on the island is either a member of the family or is working for the family -- making them all possible suspects. Using leads from old photographs and coded numbers written in Harriet’s Bible, the unlikely partners solve the mystery over several hundred pages, most of which are entertaining.
Before he turned to fiction, the author was a crusading journalist, and the novel incorporates two themes important to Larsson: Nazism and violence against women. At times he is a bit too journalistic, as when he begins each chapter with an unnecessary statistic about violence against women in Sweden. Or when he writes, "[B]y the time she was eighteen, Salander did not know a single girl who had not been forced to perform some sort of sexual act against her will.” Salander is a victim of sexual violence and seeks an almost equally violent revenge, giving her a power that, in real life, most victims never seem to have.
Salander is as sympathetic as she is odd, an interesting mix of power and vulnerability. And Blomkvist is also a likable character.
The writing is not beautiful, clipped at times (though that could be the translation by Reg Keeland) and with a few too many falsely dramatic endings to sections or chapters. But it is a compelling, well-woven tale that succeeds in transporting the reader to rural Sweden for a good crime story.