Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled Men Who Hate Women… catchy, huh?) is living a male mid-life crisis fantasy. Despite being an indifferent father, he maintains a good relationship with both his ex-wife and daughter. His lovers (we meet five during the course of the narrative) make no demands on his time, fidelity or affection. He comes and goes as he pleases, responsible and committed to no one. And the women in his life not only accept this… they like it. James Bond, eat your heart out.
Why do I bring this up? Because the target audience of this type of thriller/mystery novel is so obviously men… and men of a certain age. I found it all a bit creepy, and mildly hilarious. Creepy because Blomkvist is considered the ideal, when he’s not really that good of a guy. He’s just better than what is given as the alternative. Hilarious because of the women lining up to get into bed with him… to the point that he needs to turn them away because he’s double booked. There’s a lot in this book that is, in fact, creepy and mildly hilarious.
The story begins with Blomkvist, a financial reporter & publisher by day, being convicted for libel. The case has destroyed his credibility and brought into question the integrity of his magazine, Millenium, of which he is part owner. In an attempt at damage control he has decided to lie low for a year and accepts an offer from Henrik Vanger (patriarch of the Vanger business empire) to write the Vanger family history. At the same time he is to research the 40-year-old disappearance of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salinger, – a pierced, tattooed, socially awkward private investigator – and the two form a skewed Sherlock & Watson duo wh0 (apparently) will take us through the next two books of Larsson’s “Millenium trilogy”.
“Good morning, Froken Salander,” he greeted her cheerfully. “It was a late night, I see. Can I come in?”
Without waiting for an answer, he walked in, closing the door behind her. He regarded with curiosity the pile of clothes on the hall floor and the rampart of bags filled with newspapers; then he peered through the bedroom door while Salander’s world started spinning in the wrong direction. How? What? Who? Blomkvist looked at her bewilderment with amusement.
“I assumed you would not have had breakfast yet, so I brought some filled bagels with me. I got one with roast beef, one with turkey and Dijon mustard, and one vegetarian with avocado, not knowing your preference.” He marched into her kitchen and started rinsing her coffeemaker. “Where do you keep coffee?” he said. Salander stood in the hall as if frozen until she heard the water running out of the tap. She took three quick strides.
“Stop! Stop at once!” She realised that she was shouting and lowered her voice. “Damn it all, you can’t come barging in here as if you own the place. We don’t even know each other.”
Blomkvist paused, holding a jug and turned to look at her.
“Wrong! You know me better than almost anyone else does. Isn’t that so?”
He turned his back on her and poured the water into the machine. Then he started opening her cupboards in search of coffee. “Speaking of which, I know how you do it…”
There’s a lot of gratuitous sex in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… some fairly benign, a lot of it pretty sick. Sexual sadism is a major and reoccurring theme. But that seems to have become a standard of this genre, and Larsson really has no choice than to give the readers what they seem to want. Fortunately, he is a talented writer and once you get past the sexual violence the novel makes for an engrossing read. Mikael Blomkvist is likeable (if a somewhat ridiculous) hero. The mystery is well executed, with the kinds of twists and turns that will keep a reader on his toes. In addition to the missing girl mystery, there is a corporate/legal thriller and a dynastic family saga replete with skeleton stuffed closets. There’s also the character of Lisbeth Salander – enough of an enigma to be considered a plotline unto herself.
Stieg Larsson has created a complex novel which weaves together several strong plotlines. The surprise is how well they all manage to fit together. There is nothing bloated about this text. Even in translation it’s obvious that the writing is good and the story carefully plotted. The ending is completely unexpected… so it’s worth it to stay spoiler free on this one. (I actually listened to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an audio book. Simon Vance gives a wonderful reading, though his Lisbeth inexplicably speaks with a British accent. Nevertheless, he made traffic into not a bad thing).
Men Who Hate Women was originally published in Sweden after the author’s death and became an international bestseller in 2005. The next two novels have followed suit and I imagine I’ll eventually pick those up as well. This is not a deep book, and there’s really not a whole lot of psychological complexity to be found in the characters. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo travels well and makes a stronger showing than most novels of its ilk. (Plus, let’s face it, how often do you have an opportunity to say the book you’re currently reading is by a Swedish author?) As for the creepy factor I mentioned earlier – there’s a lot of juxtaposing of normal sex scenes with scenes of sexual violence which I found a little disturbing, even if being “disturbing” was the author’s intention . That said, I may be overly sensitive. I’m confident that most readers of the genre will enjoy the book and continue on to the next in the series.