The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Viking Canada, 2008 translation of 2005 original, 465 pages, C$32.00, ISBN 978-0-670-06901-9

As an avid six-books-a-week reader, I’m finding increasingly difficult to resist the allure of the It Book.  You know the one: The book at the top of the best-seller lists.  The book that everyone else, casual five-books-a-year readers that they are, can’t stop talking about.  That’s how my bookshelves have somehow acquired copies of The Da Vinci Code, The Celestine Prophecy and even The Secret, along with a number of otherwise respectable books in movie tie-in editions.

So when I realised that nearly everyone around me was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I started thinking that I was missing out on something.  The series certainly has a fascinating background: The work of a left-leaning Swedish journalist who died in 2005, the Millennium trilogy was published posthumously to near-instant international acclaim.  A trilogy of movies speedily made their way around the world, first landing in Canada in French translation about two years before the English editions.  By the time the first movie hit theatres in English and the third novel was published to good sale numbers, I decided to catch up on what had everyone raving.

It turns out that contrary to elitist belief, quality and sales sometimes have something to do with each other.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, first volume in Larsson’s trilogy, is a pretty good mystery set in modern-day Sweden.  It presents an effective enigma, two fantastic lead characters and is written with the kind of attention to procedural detail that only mystery readers can fully appreciate.

It starts unusually enough, as its hero-journalist Mikael Blomvkist is convicted of libel against a rich industrialist.  Disgraced, he quits his position at the Millenium magazine he co-founded and plans on idling away the days until his prison sentence.  But things take another turn when he is hired by another rich businessman to investigate on a decades-old disappearance.  Working from the slenderest of threads with an unlikely ally, he manages to not only gain clues about the mystery he’s been asked to resolve, but uncover a far more terrifying one as well.

Never mind the story, though: The real heart of the novel is the unlikely team between our journalist and a prickly hacker named Lisbeth Salander.  He is kind, honest, smart, a bit passive, a hit with the ladies and working from the privileged position of a well-off white male.  She, on the other hand, is moody, asocial, brilliant, considered a ward of the state and unable to form attachments with anyone.  They’re mismatched, but they develop an understanding.  Still, their partnership isn’t without its issues, and it’s that dynamic that ends up carrying the novel as much as the development of the plot.

It also helps that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has quite a bit of thematic depth.  The original title of the book (and indeed the subtitle of the French edition) is Men Who Hate Women, and that theme does end up having an impact on the entire story on more than one level.  It’s no accident, for instance, if Salander is the one character of the pair who is both most victimized and most capable of violence.

What does end up lessening the novel, though, is its relatively slow pacing.  It seemingly takes forever for the mystery to be revealed to the character, and even longer for any criminal activity to become apparent.  The investigation itself is fine, but the action climax of the novel happens far too early: The rest of the novel reads like an extended epilogue as all the remaining threads are slowly tied together.  If I was feeling generous, I would call this a delightful change of pace stemming from the different cultural milieu in which the novel was written (ie; the Swedes take their time).  For more impatient readers, however, this may end up being a sticking point.

(Nitpick: The translation of the Canadian Viking edition also has the annoying tendency to translate measures in American-style imperial, rather than the metric system common to both Canada and Sweden.)

But this aside, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is not just an enjoyable mystery/thriller, but also a promising first volume in an ongoing series cut short to a trilogy by the author’s death.  Blomvkist and Salander are a fascinating team, and there are at least two more books to spend with them.

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