For my Christmas novel this year I chose Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I knew little about the story or characters, and little about the author except that he had died in 2004 after completing this novel and two others in a series. I enjoy reading novels by foreign authors. Larsson was Swedish and he sets this novel in Stockholm and along the east coast of Sweden. This was a very different Sweden from Ingmar Bergman’s films. However, like Bergman, Larsson explores the reaches of the human heart, how it can be hurt, and how it can be healed.
First of all, I LOVED this novel. I had problems putting it down to eat, sleep, etc. I am really looking forward to the two other books in the series that this novel began, i.e. The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Larsson’s website is clean, easy to navigate and has information on the novels as well as the movies being made in Sweden of all three. It is a very sad thing that Larsson died so suddenly of a heart attack and did not see his novels published or the reader response to them.
Second, Larsson uses, to powerful effect, the technique of allowing other characters to introduce primary characters. We meet Mikael Blomkvist directly, but then learn more about him through the investigation done by Lisbeth Salander of Milton Security for a lawyer working for the man who will hire Blomkvist based on Salander’s conclusions about him. Salander’s boss introduces her, then we see Salander in action, reporting her findings to the lawyer. The first almost 100 pages are all about these characters and what is important to them, what drives them. Then on page 100 (in the Vintage paperback), we get the purpose that will drive the story. This set-up is quite long, and so focused on character rather than action that Larsson risks losing the reader, except the characters are so interesting. Throughout the novel, Blomkvist comments in his mind about other characters, as does Salander, but their thoughts do not align, giving the story an added layer of suspense.
Third, I admire Larsson for taking on a subgenre of the thriller genre, serial killer, and breathing new life into it. He gives his characters psychological depth without making it obvious. As Blomkvist and Salander work, we are next to them, following the leads, researching past events, and making conclusions. I admit that I had figured out who the killer was long before Larsson reveals it, but then he pulls back into the story a thread he’d introduced at the beginning for Blomkvist, connects it to the serial killer plot, and gives it the Salander treatment as Blomkvist works to tie up loose ends. Absolutely awesome.
Finally, Lisbeth Salander is now one of my all-time favorite characters. Tough and vulnerable, highly intelligent but not socially adept, an outsider who doesn’t want to be inside society, her mind and behavior illustrate brilliantly the aftereffects of severe trauma on a human. But Larsson doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He writes Salander as she is, the bad and the good (and yes, there’s major bad), without sentimentalizing her or her past in any way. In fact, he withholds what the original trauma was and focuses on who Salander is in the present of the story.
I recommend The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo highly for anyone interested in fine writing, original storytelling and characters so real you may just end up talking back to them as you read…..especially Lisbeth Salander.