The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (whose original Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates to Men Who Hate Women) lives far beyond the confines of its nearly 600 pages because, as sensationalist as a few of Larsson’s scenes are, we know them to be real torments in this present world. Sadists exist. They hide their hobby well. The world goes on. Stieg Larsson’s thriller is a punch in the face that we understand that reality.
Henrik Vanger, CEO of Vanger Corporation, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter reeling from a recent libel conviction, to look into his niece Harriet’s disappearance. It’s a case that has tried the patience of the investigating cops (and others in the Vanger family) and that has become Henrik’s obsession for the past 40 years. Blomkvist pokes around in the Vanger family chronicle, at first merely indulging Henrik his obsession, but bit by bit he uncovers new evidence until everything just blows up toward the end and Larsson shows us what he’s capable of writing.
Harriet’s disappearance is only one part to the crime, and it’s a crime that just won’t quit.
By no means does The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo push an agenda. It’s a thriller first and foremost that happens also to make a very big statement. Larsson fronts each section of his book with a statistic about violence against women in Sweden. It’s a stark allusion to reality. That the statistic for a particular section doesn’t necessarily correspond directly with either what precedes or follows it is the story (or rather, the character) influencing the writer: a thorn in the side whose voice is angry and persistent and most certainly not going away until given the attention (vengeance?) it is due. It’s Lisbeth Salander force-feeding us the facts we’ve wanted to ignore. They’re an interruption to say, “Hey buddy boy, this is fucking important.”
Lisbeth Salander is Mikael’s research assistant, a hacker who did background on Mikael before Henrik hired him for the project of finding the truth in Harriet’s disappearance. Salander’s own background is enough to fill a novel. Larsson lays out her history (minimally, such that he piques our interest while giving her the credibility of reticence hardened by a painful history) alongside that of Vanger’s family. Her history gives her a heightened view of the crimes and a new perspective that, like Larsson’s statistics, tries to refocus events to highlight a different problem, one that she understands all too well.
Salander is skittish and intuitive, sensing buried truths before finding the proofs that would ordinarily lead the way. Her relationship with Blomkvist is strangely believable when we look on it alongside those she had with Holger Palmgren, her former guardian (almost a paternal one), and the one she has with Dragan Armansky, her employer at Milton Security (a professional one, his own personal interest in her known, resignedly kept at a distance but also politely respectful).
Salander works at Milton Security as a freelancer, doing research and digging up dirt and presenting portfolios that will allow Milton to provide security (in whatever form) to its clients. She’s a resourceful hacker with the capacity to go rogue, and she stays her hand by the oh-so-slight caution, analysis of consequences, aka don’t be impulsive, don’t be stupid – in professional life and in personal life; it’s a gnarly problem when Palmgren dies and Advokat Bjurman takes his place, abusing it, as her guardian.
Salander is the “perfect victim” (Larsson refers to her on at least one occasion in these specific terms). She’s a ward of the state, her legal status given as the result of her self-defense as a teenager and her subsequent refusal to cooperate in the investigation. She’s in her mid-twenties, but dresses in ‘90s punk and does her hair in a way that is more suitable to the club scene than the offices at Milton. She’s referenced as being “anorexically” thin and looking as if she were in her mid to late teens. She has tattoos without rhyme or reason (at least that we yet can discern): artistic as a dragon across her shoulder blade, plain as a thin line circling her ankle. She has no control over the money she earns; that’s left to Bjurman, her court appointed guardian. We know from the beginning that she’s experienced abuse, but we don’t know the extent of that abuse, though we get an idea from her vindictiveness and the lengths she’ll go to in order to supply her own crude form of justice.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t start out like a thriller. Its plotting is wrapped up in Blomkvist’s libel conviction and an explanation of the Wennerström Corporation’s defrauding of the government (reporting on whose crime earned Blomkvist his conviction). Truth or no truth in the story, Blomkvist didn’t fight the verdict – the source documents were falsified; his allegations stood in print, unsubstantiated.
Larsson made Mikael Blomkvist a naive man, ready to dole out second chances and look for a pardonable explanation where, really, there might only be a sick mind. He could easily have portrayed his protagonist as a faultless hero. A lot of authors would have. But he gave his Kalle Blomkvist a decidedly large handicap: naivety coupled with a libel suit.
Larsson was himself a journalist for a number of years, writing particularly from a far Left standpoint, and no doubt his own wrestling with the problem of journalistic integrity vying with the more prosaic admonition to “be a human being” influenced his literary work. He picks up this theme in a minor way toward the end of the novel, a little side commentary on investigative journalism.
After its slow start, the adrenaline finally starts pumping and the plotting in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo becomes impeccable. Larsson keeps a tempo pace, blocking off one avenue while he opens another, tying up one thread while he lets a new skein start to unravel. The two main storylines in his novel – Salander’s troubles (past and present) and Mikael’s investigation into Harriet’s disappearance – Larsson tangles up so neatly that it seems impossible they shouldn’t connect but even more impossible that they could ever unknot.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t start out like a thriller and it doesn’t end like a thriller, either, much less like one that’s first in a series. The mysteries (both of them) are complete. No new adventure takes hold of Salander and Blomkvist as a way to usher in a second volume. But we’ve finally zeroed in on Lisbeth Salander. We know a lot about her by now, but that only goes to show us how little we know her, a problem that gets bigger and bigger the more we try to understand it.
Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.
The perfect victim is the one who never existed.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo · Stieg Larsson · 2005
Reg Keeland translation · Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2011 · 590 pages, paperback
— The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in Larsson’s Millenium series:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl who Played with Fire
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest