When I think of Sweden I picture an idyllic place. Sweden attracts travelers from all over the world to it's elegant, charming cities, and villages, forests and lakes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by the late author and journalist Steig Larsson, is set in modern-day Sweden. But my picturesque image of Sweden was shattered by this international bestseller, as a darker Sweden emerges in Larsson's novel, the first book of his Millennium trilogy. I was shocked by the graphic sexual violence, primarily against women but also towards men. That being said, though, this is a crime thriller, and some degree of violence is to be expected, and plays a key role in this book.
As Kate points out, the novel is complex, filled with twists and turns, and fascinating characters, and a summary of it would not do it justice and might spoil it for potential readers. Instead of trying to summarize this layered book, I offer a few words about the basic premise of the story (please forgive me if I've oversimplified the story).
Forty years ago, 16-year-old Harriet Vanger disappeared from an island owned and inhabited by Sweden's powerful Vanger family. In frail health, Harriet's great uncle, Henrik, makes one last desperate attempt to solve the mystery. He is convinced that she was murdered by someone from the dysfunctional Vanger family, and he hires a recently disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, for a year to investigate this stale enquiry. Making little progress, Mikael in turn hires a tattooed assistant to help him, a gifted yet asocial researcher and hacker, Lisbeth Salander (who turns out to be an unforgettable character). Together they join forces to solve the case of Harriet's disappearance in a story which tackles issues such as power, corruption, justice, sexism and racism, in the form of an original, riveting mystery.
Once I got into this book, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. As Kate points out in her review, the beginning is a bit laborious and perhaps overly-detailed, but after the first thirty pages or so, this book transformed into a total page-turner. Now I'm anxious to read the sequel to this book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, upon it's release in the United States in July. I really want to know what happens next! I'd also like to see the movie based on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, should it be available here as well.
Friday, December 20
The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. The written verdict was handed down at 10:00 on Friday morning, and all that remained was a summing up from the reporters waiting in the corridor outside the district court.
"Carl" Mikael Blomkvist saw them through the doorway and slowed his step. He had no wish to discuss the verdict, but questions were unavoidable, and he—of all people—knew that they had to be asked and answered. This is how it is to be a criminal, he thought. On the other side of the microphone. He straightened up and tried to smile. The reporters gave him friendly, almost embarrassed greetings.
"Let's see...Aftonbladet, Expressen, TT wire service, TV4, and...where are you from? ...ah yes, Dagens Nyheter. I must be a celebrity," Blomkvist said.
"Give us a sound bite, Kalle Blomkvist." It was a reporter from one of the evening papers.
Blomkvist, hearing the nickname, forced himself as always not to roll his eyes. Once, when he was twenty-three and had just started his first summer job as a journalist, Blomkvist had chanced upon a gang which had pulled off five bank robberies over the past two years. There was no doubt that it was the same gang in every instance. Their trademark was to hold up two banks at a time with military precision. They wore masks from Disney World, so inevitably police logic dubbed them the Donald Duck Gang. The newspapers renamed them the Bear Gang, which sounded more sinister, more appropriate to the fact that on two occasions they had recklessly fired warning shots and threatened curious passersby.
Their sixth outing was at a bank in Östergötland at the height of the holiday season. A reporter from the local radio station happened to be in the bank at the time. As soon as the robbers were gone he went to a public telephone and dictated his story for live broadcast.
Blomkvist was spending several days with a girlfriend at her parents' summer cabin near Katrineholm. Exactly why he made the connection he could not explain, even to the police, but as he was listening to the news report he remembered a group of four men in a summer cabin a few hundred feet down the road. He had seen them playing badminton out in the yard: four blond, athletic types in shorts with their shirts off. They were obviously bodybuilders, and there had been something about them that had made him look twice—maybe it was because the game was being played in blazing sunshine with what he recognised as intensely focused energy.
There had been no good reason to suspect them of being the bank robbers, but nevertheless he had gone to a hill overlooking their cabin. It seemed empty. It was about forty minutes before a Volvo drove up and parked in the yard. The young men got out, in a hurry, and were each carrying a sports bag, so they might have been doing nothing more than coming back from a swim. But one of them returned to the car and took out from the boot something which he hurriedly covered with his jacket. Even from Blomkvist's relatively distant observation post he could tell that it was a good old AK4, the rifle that had been his constant companion for the year of his military service.
He called the police and that was the start of a three-day siege of the cabin, blanket coverage by the media, with Blomkvist in a front-row seat and collecting a gratifyingly large fee from an evening paper. The police set up their headquarters in a caravan in the garden of the cabin where Blomkvist was staying.
The fall of the Bear Gang gave him the star billing that launched him as a young journalist. The downside of his celebrity was that the other evening newspaper could not resist using the headline "Kalle Blomkvist solves the case." The tongue-in-cheek story was written by an older female columnist and contained references to the young detective in Astrid Lindgren's books for children. To make matters worse, the paper had run the story with a grainy photograph of Blomkvist with his mouth half open even as he raised an index finger to point.
It made no difference that Blomkvist had never in life used the name Carl. From that moment on, to his dismay, he was nicknamed Kalle Blomkvist by his peers—an epithet employed with taunting provocation, not unfriendly but not really friendly either. In spite of his respect for Astrid Lindgren—whose books he loved—he detested the nickname. It took him several years and far weightier journalistic successes before the nickname began to fade, but he still cringed if ever the name was used in his hearing.
Right now he achieved a placid smile and said to the reporter from the evening paper: "Oh come on, think of something yourself. You usually do."
His tone was not unpleasant. They all knew each other, more or less, and Blomkvist's most vicious critics had not come that morning. One of the journalists there had at one time worked with him. And at a party some years ago he had nearly succeeded in picking up one of the reporters—the woman from She on TV4.
"You took a real hit in there today," said the one from Dagens Nyheter, clearly a young part-timer. "How does it feel?"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, neither Blomkvist nor the older journalists could help smiling. He exchanged glances with TV4. How does it feel? The half-witted sports reporter shoves his microphone in the face of the Breathless Athlete on the finishing line.
"I can only regret that the court did not come to a different conclusion," he said a bit stuffily.
"Three months in gaol and 150,000 kronor damages. That's pretty severe," said She from TV4.
"Are you going to apologise to Wennerström? Shake his hand?"
"I think not."
"So you still would say that he's a crook?" Dagens Nyheter.
The court had just ruled that Blomkvist had libelled and defamed the financier Hans-Erik Wennerström. The trial was over and he had no plans to appeal. So what would happen if he repeated his claim on the courthouse steps? Blomkvist decided that he did not want to find out.
"I thought I had good reason to publish the information that was in my possession. The court has ruled otherwise, and I must accept that the judicial process has taken its course. Those of us on the editorial staff will have to discuss the judgement before we decide what we're going to do. I have no more to add."
"But how did you come to forget that journalists actually have to back up their assertions?" She from TV4. Her expression was neutral, but Blomkvist thought he saw a hint of disappointed repudiation in her eyes.
The reporters on site, apart from the boy from Dagens Nyheter, were all veterans in the business. For them the answer to that question was beyond the conceivable. "I have nothing to add," he repeated, but when the others had accepted this TV4 stood him against the doors to the courthouse and asked her questions in front of the camera. She was kinder than he deserved, and there were enough clear answers to satisfy all the reporters still standing behind her. The story would be in the headlines but he reminded himself that they were not dealing with the media event of the year here. The reporters had what they needed and headed back to their respective newsrooms.
He considered walking, but it was a blustery December day and he was already cold after the interview. As he walked down the courtroom steps, he saw William Borg getting out of his car. He must have been sitting there during the interview. Their eyes met, and then Borg smiled.
"It was worth coming down here just to see you with that paper in your hand."
Blomkvist said nothing. Borg and Blomkvist had known each other for fifteen years.They had worked together as cub reporters for the financial section of a morning paper. Maybe it was a question of chemistry, but the foundation had been laid there for a lifelong enmity. In Blomkvist's eyes, Borg had been a third-rate reporter and a troublesome person who annoyed everyone around him with crass jokes and made disparaging remarks about the more experienced, older reporters. He seemed to dislike the older female reporters in particular. They had their first quarrel, then others, and anon the antagonism turned personal.
Over the years, they had run into each other regularly, but it was not until the late nineties that they became serious enemies. Blomkvist had published a book about financial journalism and quoted extensively a number of idiotic articles written by Borg. Borg came across as a pompous ass who got many of his facts upside down and wrote homages to dot-com companies that were on the brink of going under. When thereafter they met by chance in a bar in Söder they had all but come to blows. Borg left journalism, and now he worked in PR—for a considerably higher salary—at a firm that, to make things worse, was part of industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström's sphere of influence.
They looked at each other for a long moment before Blomkvist turned on his heel and walked away. It was typical of Borg to drive to the courthouse simply to sit there and laugh at him.
The number 40 bus braked to a stop in front of Borg's car and Blomkvist hopped on to make his escape. He got off at Fridhemsplan, undecided what to do. He was still holding the judgement document in his hand. Finally he walked over to Kafé Anna, next to the garage entrance leading underneath the police station.
Half a minute after he had ordered a caffe latte and a sandwich, the lunchtime news came on the radio. The story followed that of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and the news that the government had appointed a commission to investigate the alleged formation of a new cartel within the construction industry.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine Millennium was sentenced this morning to 90 days in gaol for aggravated libel of industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. In an article earlier this year that drew attention to the so-called Minos affair, Blomkvist claimed that Wennerström had used state funds intended for industrial investment in Poland for arms deals. Blomkvist was also sentenced to pay 150,000 SEK in damages. In a statement, Wennerström's lawyer Bertil Camnermarker said that his client was satisfied with the judgement. It was an exceptionally outrageous case of libel, he said.
The judgement was twenty-six pages long. It set out the reasons for finding Blomkvist guilty on fifteen counts of aggravated libel of the businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. So each count cost him ten thousand kronor and six days in gaol. And then there were the court costs and his own lawyer's fee. He could not bring himself to think about all the expenses, but he calculated too that it might have been worse; the court had acquitted him on seven other counts.
"Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson's first novel ... It's Larsson's two protagonists who make this more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they're both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme ... Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish."
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A big, intricately plotted, darkly humorous work, rich with ironies, quirky but believable characters and a literary playfulness that only a master of the genre and its history could bring off."
—Michael Helfand, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"The biggest Swedish phenom since ABBA."
—Josh Emmons, People
"The book lands in the United States as Wall Street sputters and global markets clench, a timely fit to Larsson's themes of corporate corruption. He tells his crime story cleverly, but the zing in Dragon Tattoo is inked in its two central characters ... Lisbeth Salander has earned a spot in the sorority [of] my favorite gutsy females."
—Karen Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A super-smart amalgam of the corporate corruption tale, legal thriller and dysfunctional-family psychological suspense story. It's witty, and unflinching in its commonsense feminist social commentary ... A veteran mystery reader could spot the clues to this novel's runaway popularity as easily as Poe's detective, Auguste Dupin, spotted that purloined letter ... Larsson's multi-pieced plot snaps together as neatly as an Ikea bookcase, but even more satisfying is the anti-social character of Salander ... I'm betting that this offbeat bad girl will win a lot of readers' affections."
—Maureen Corrigan,Fresh Air (NPR)
"Engrossing ... Lisbeth Salander is the most fascinating female protagonist in mystery fiction since Patricia Cornwell introduced Kay Scarpetta nearly two decades ago ... The Girl with the Dragon Tattoobecame a Europe-wide best-seller. It deserves the same in the United States."
—Ben Martin, The Advocate (Baton Rouge)
"Think of Sweden, and what comes to mind? Ikea and ABBA? Bikini-clad bombshells? Meatballs? How about dark secrets, sexual perversion and murder? ... A fine, complex and rewarding novel."
—Edward Nawotka, Dallas Morning News
"A remarkable first novel ... Wildly suspenseful ... The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been a huge bestseller in Europe and will be one here if readers are looking for an intelligent, ingeniously plotted, utterly engrossing thriller that is variously a serial-killer saga, a search for a missing person and an informed glimpse into the worlds of journalism and business ... It's a book that lingers in the mind ... Lisbeth is a punk Watson to Mikael's dapper Holmes, and she's the coolest crime-fighting sidekick to come along in many years."
—Patrick Anderson, Washington Post
"It's like a blast of cold, fresh air to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ... What separates Stieg Larsson's work from [other Swedish crime fiction] is that it features at its center two unique and fascinating characters: a disgraced financial journalist and the absolutely marvelous 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander—a computer-hacking Pippi Longstocking with pierced eyebrows and a survival instinct that should scare anyone who gets in her way."
—Dick Adler, Chicago Tribune
"Larsson's debut thriller succeeds on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. First off, it's an absolute page-turner. But the characters are so fascinating and the clear, understated writing so graceful, you are going to want to savor it ... Salander is electrifying ... With its northern atmosphere (especially in below frigid winter) and riveting characters, this book is for anyone who has ever read a crime story."
—Lynn Harnett, Portsmouth Herald (NH)
"Larsson's novel could serve as the definition of page-turner ... The worst part: We have to wait until summer '09 for the second installment."
—Elisabeth Vincentelli, Time Out New York
"A compelling, well-woven tale that succeeds in transporting the reader to Sweden for a good crime story."
—Marjorie Miller, Los Angeles Times
"The story has a great setting, very human characters and a plot that becomes more intriguing with every turn of the page. The excellence of Reg Keeland's translation is such that one is rarely aware the book was written in Swedish."
—Leslie McGill, Kansas City Star
"A whip-smart heroine and a hunky guy who needs her help? This sexy, addictive thriller is everything you never knew you could get from a crime novel."
"Already a blazing literary sensation internationally, Swedish journalist's dark-hearted thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now poised to burn up bestseller lists in America ... To the new breed of Watson and Holmes, skoal!"
"Is the hype justified? Yes ... This complex, multilayered tale, which combines an intricate financial thriller with an Agatha Christie-like locked-room mystery set on an island, grabs the reader from the first page ... Sweden may be the land of blondes, Ikea, and the Midnight Sun, but Larsson brilliantly exposes its dark heart: sexual violence against women, a Nazi past, and corporate corruption. Highly recommended."
—Wilda Williams, Library Journal (starred)
"The first U.S. appearance of another major Swedish crime writer is cause for celebration ... The novel offers compelling chunks of investigative journalism, high-tech sleuthing, and psychosexual drama. What a shame that we only have three books in which to watch the charismatic Lisbeth Salander take on the world!"
"Dark, labyrinthine, smart, sexy, utterly original, and completely captivating, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo delights at every level. Nuanced, sympathetic characters, caught in a tangle of unusual and compelling relationships, grapple with a baffling family mystery and with their own demons in the unique literary environment of modern-day Sweden. This book is artful and grand entertainment. I couldn't recommend it more highly."
"With its compelling situation, its complex plot and especially its unique, fully-realized characters, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo embodies—in seamless translation—the best of European crime fiction."
"So much more than a thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dazzling novel of big ideas. It tackles issues of power, corruption, justice, and innocence—all the while drawing you into the twists and turns of a frighteningly suspenseful mystery."
"In nearly a half-century of reading mystery and crime fiction, I can remember no more captivating or original character than Lisbeth. The only disappointment is that there will be only three books to hold readers spellbound because of the tragic death of this superb author."
—Otto Penzler, editor of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, owner of The Mysterious Bookshop
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a striking novel. Just when I was thinking there wasn't anything new on the horizon, along comes Stieg Larsson with this wonderfully unique story. I was completely absorbed.”
“I doubt you will read a better book this year.”
Cases rarely come much colder than the decades-old disappearance of teen heiress Harriet Vanger from her family's remote island retreat north of Stockholm, nor do fiction debuts hotter than this European bestseller by muckraking Swedish journalist Larsson. At once a strikingly original thriller and a vivisection of Sweden's dirty not-so-little secrets (as suggested by its original title, Men Who Hate Women), this first of a trilogy introduces a provocatively odd couple: disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, freshly sentenced to jail for libeling a shady businessman, and the multipierced and tattooed Lisbeth Salander, a feral but vulnerable superhacker. Hired by octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger, who wants to find out what happened to his beloved great-niece before he dies, the duo gradually uncover a festering morass of familial corruption—at the same time, Larsson skillfully bares some of the similar horrors that have left Salander such a marked woman. Larsson died in 2004, shortly after handing in the manuscripts for what will be his legacy.
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an utterly fresh political and journalistic thriller that is also intimate and moral. In spite of its dark unearthings Stieg Larsson has written a feast of a book, with central characters you will not forget."
"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a Tolstoyan re-invention of the 'closed room' murder mystery, Agatha Christie for adults. Curl up on the sofa with this masterwork of noir and let Stieg Larsson draw you into the shadows. It's also a profound investigation into tribal violence in the world of high finance, and a revelation of the dark side of a country normally seen as the very height of propriety. By the end of the first chapter you will know better. By the end of the second you will be putty in his hands. Don't even think about putting it down."
"What a cracking novel! I haven't read such a stunning thriller debut for years. The way Larsson interweaves his two stories had me in thrall from beginning to end. Brilliantly written and totally gripping."
"I could not stop turning the pages ofThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is a compelling blend of techno-thriller and family mystery that introduces Lisbeth Salander, a new breed of justice-seeking computer whiz who knows your secrets, and how to use them."
"As vivid as bloodstains on snow—and a perfect one-volume introduction to the unique strengths of Scandinavian crime fiction."
"Crime fiction has seldom needed to salute and mourn such a stellar talent as Larsson's in the same breath."
"A rip-roaring serial killer adventure."
—Mail on Sunday
"This book is a sensation, and without a doubt likely to be one of the top thrillers of this—or any other—year! This is CLASSIC crime fiction."
—Readings Book Review (Australia)