How do you solve a murder that happened 36 years ago -- if it happened at all? What distinguishes retribution from revenge -- or is there a difference? And just how dysfunctional can one family be? These are the ingredients of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the insanely popular mystery novel from late authir Stieg Larsson.

At the book's opening in December 2002, things are very rough for Swedish financial reporter and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist. His story about corrubt businessman Wennerstrom backfired, leading Blomkvist to be convicted of libel and costing him his reputation, his money, possibly his magazine's future, and three months in jail. Things turn around -- for better or worse -- with an offer from Henrik Vanger, the 84-year-old patriarch of the Vanger family, a once-powerful and still-important group of industrialists.

Henrik hates most of his family, which ranges from the selfish to the misanthropic to a supporter of the Nazis. During a family gathering in 1966 on the Vanger's home on an island, a truck accident blocked the bridge that was the only connection between the island and the mainland. At about the same time Harriet Vanger -- Henrik's 16-year-old niece, and one of the few family members he liked -- vanished. No body was found, and no sign of her appeared afterwards. Henrik believes someone, probably a family member, used the accident as an opportunity to kill Harriet and smuggle her body out in a car before the search was fully underway. Henrik also believes Harriet's killer is the one who has sent him a rare flower in glass every year on Henrik's birthday -- something Harriet did until she disappeared.

Blomkvist's job is to spend a year among the Vanger family on their island, ostensibly to write their history but really to find out what happened to Harriet. Blomkvist will be well paid if he finds nothing, but twice as much if he solves the mystery. In addition, Henrik has promised that if Blomkvist figures out what happened, he'll give Blomkvist proof of Wennerstrom's corruption.

Then there's Lisbeth Salander. The title character, Lisbeth looks like a typical punk -- tattoos, piercings -- who seems almost psychotically asocial. She's also a brilliant researcher, a talented hacker, and -- despite her slight build -- devastating when dealing out vengeance against those who wrong her (which happens, graphically and brutally, here). She starts out investigating Blomkvist and winds up helping him investigatge the disappearance of Harriet Vanger.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, as several characters mention, a mystery of the "locked room" variety: What happened in the seemingly inaccessible location? As a mystery, this is extremely well written. We go along with the Blomkvist as he goes from seeing his assignment as an old man's obsession to a possibly real crime, to something far more sinister and going beyond Harriet. The main characters are both admirable and flawed: Blomkvist may be noble, but he's also a notorious womanizer (including with one of the suspects in the Vanger family); Lisbeth has a history of horrors, which may be why she has trouble relating to the world -- and responding with calculated ferocity. The Vanger family proves to be a truly twisted intertwining family unit, and there are amazingly disgusting -- and suspenseful -- scenes on the way to unravelling the mystery of Harriet's disappearance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo veers at times into very brutal territory (though doubtless inspired by the statistics about how many women suffer abuse in Sweden), but it's a tense, surprising, and extremely involving mystery. Larsson has two other books with these protagonists -- The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- and I look forward to reading these as well.

Overal grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

No comments: