Mikael Blomkvist is in trouble. He’s a Swedish financial journalist, editor of a hard-hitting magazine called Millennium, and he’s being sued for libel: it turns out that the story he published about a wealthy and corrupt financier was false from beginning to end, and he didn’t have a scrap of proof for it. He’ll have to pay a fine and go to jail, and advertisers are pulling out of Millennium faster than he can replace them, because he’s lost his credibility as a journalist.
Which makes it all the more confusing when Henrik Vanger, another corporate magnate, approaches him with a job. I’ll save your magazine, he says, if you do something for me. Write my family history. And along the way, do the impossible: solve a thirty-year-old mystery.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, is like one of those matryoshka dolls: another mystery nesting — surprise! — in each one that begins to yield to investigation. The first is a corporate thriller, primarily to do with offshore accounts, greed, corruption, and financial sleight-of-hand. The second is a missing-person mystery, and incidentally also a locked-room mystery: Harriet Vanger, Henrik’s niece, disappeared without a trace from Hedestad Island thirty years before. Henrik has been tormented by the disappearance ever since, and wants Blomkvist to examine the cold case one more time, to see if any detail has been missed. The third mystery emerges as Blomkvist studies the facts of Harriet’s disappearance: it seems that a serial killer has been killing women in Sweden since the 1940s, undetected because the murders take place far apart and the method of murder varies.
Blomkvist is not alone in his investigation. About a third of the way through the book, he hires a research assistant, Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is deceptively young, hostile, difficult, taciturn, impossibly tough, self-sufficient, and the best researcher in Sweden. She is also a hacker: she can have all your personal information on her computer in a few seconds, for her perusal. The two of them together discover dangerous information — information they are prepared to use — and this provokes retaliation from their enemies.
To be perfectly honest, I thought this book was just okay, with a taste of being really terrible. It was very, very long for a mystery (almost 600 pages), so it really had to hold up in order to give me the will to live. It was fairly gripping as far as plot went, as you can see from my summary, and it certainly kept me turning pages. The writing was fine, but nothing to get excited about. The plot was not all that original, except that it used the material of three normal detective mysteries. Blomkvist was (I think) supposed to be a Nice Guy, but I had serious problems with his ethics: he did almost everything he said he wouldn’t do (sleeping with people you work with, not publishing an important story, sleeping with a main suspect in your investigation, and so on.) The main mystery was, to my mind, not resolved in a satisfying way, either. I was left saying, “But… but…”
My main problem with it, though, was that it had so much violence against women. The title in Swedish is Män som hatar kvinnor, which means Men Who Hate Women, and to be honest that’s a far better title for it than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There were graphic (and I mean graphic) descriptions of at least thirteen assaults, twelve of which had a rape component and eleven of which were against women. (Many, many more were implied but not described.) Several of these were totally gratuitous (not related to any of the main plots.) For a book that had two very strong female central characters, it was surprisingly unfeminist, and frankly I found it disgusting. What was odd was that the characters were not more horrified. Blomkvist spent more time worrying that his daughter was going to spend some time with a Christian sect than shell-shocked by these assaults.
I don’t mean to rant. The book was a common or garden thriller — this kind of thing is fairly usual, whatever that may mean about the state of the thriller. But after Eva’s excellent posts about contemporary horror last week, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to say that unconsidered and gratuitous misogynist violence is not for me.