“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008) is the English translation of the bestselling European thriller “Men Who Hated Women” (2005) by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. In Barcelona, I saw the book “Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres” displayed in bookstore windows, sitting on the laps of metro passengers and even strewn on my couch. But it was intimidatingly thick, and I figured I should be using my free time in Spain to read actual Hispanic literature rather than Spanish translations of Scandinavian authors.
When I spotted the book (the first of a trilogy) in West Virginia, I bought a copy under the influence of a mild bout of nostalgia for cosmopolitan Europe. I also found the Nordic setting of the mystery novel intriguing because of my Swedish friend Stina, a nineteen-year-old au pair with a blonde bob that framed a face perfectly in line with the Hollywood image of a sweet Alpine shepherdess or a sexy foreign exchange student. We spent many rainy afternoons sipping café con leche and chatting about Swedish versus American culture in the bookstore café by our language school.
The book’s main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is the publisher of muckraking Millennium magazine and an investigative reporter critical of his country’s incompetent financial journalists for their failure to expose rampant corporate corruption. Ironically, he’s just been convicted of libel at the expense of the gangster industrialist Wennerstrom. When Blomkvist is in the pit of his disgrace, Henrik Vanger, the aging heir to an industrial dynasty, hires him to investigate his beloved great-niece Harriet’s disappearance 40 years before. Blomkvist accepts the assignment under the guise of writing the memoirs of the Vanger family -- a vast clan spiked with spiteful relations and Nazi sympathies.
Blomkvist ends up seeking the assistance of Lisbeth Salander, a young and sickeningly petite woman peppered with tattoos and piercings. She's socially inept to the point of violent but turns out to be a mathematical genius and computer hacker extraordinaire. Her character is a sort of disturbed femme fatale action hero. She's got a motorbike, a junk food addiction and a gruesome history of abuse. While trying to uncover what happened to Harriet, the unlikely pair unexpectedly discovers a series of long forgotten murders more sordid than anything anyone imagined and find themselves hunted by the killer.
Most of the book takes place on the cold, gloomy island of Hedeby outside Stockholm, as Vagner’s offer stipulates that Blomkvist relocate to the Vagner family estate in the secluded village of Hedested for the year. The dark atmosphere lends an element of modern, Swedish noir to the novel. Larsson writes in a concise and candid journalistic tone. He devotes many lines of text to the intricacies of international financial fraud but (with the exception of one unrelated, gratuitous and grisly assault scene) provides only brief yet haunting descriptions of the sadistic crimes. Admittedly this is not highbrow literature that we're critiquing, but neither are the sales-chart-toppers by Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer.
Larsson, who spent much of his journalistic career exposing right wing extremist and racist organizations, wrote the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels for fun in the evenings after work. He died in 2004 shortly after completing the manuscripts and before their publication. He never knew the sensational international success of his gripping story of misogynic violence and corporate crime.