Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Visit Stockholm, Sweden and you'll be entranced by cleanliness from the moment you arrive. Brightly-hued flowers mingle with the beauty of Old World brick and stonework while freshly-scrubbed Swedes wind their way to work. Even in this modern metropolis, you cannot but marvel at the effort taken to present such an immaculate, crisp image to the outside world.

But Stieg Larsson knows better.

First published in English a year ago, Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has garnered considerable praise for its deft characterization in service to a high tension mystery/thriller plot. Yet it's not the usual thriller trappings that enthrall readers entirely. This is no banal police procedural or run-of-the-mill locked room mystery (though elements of both figure prominently in the novel). Instead, there is something simply riveting about what Larsson reveals about his native Sweden - things which, I suppose, most Swedes already know, but which Americans could not even begin to fathom.

Calling Larsson's Sweden "seedy" just isn't the right term. Take the image of a 1970s-era Times Square completely out of your mind. Likewise, drop your noir-driven conceptions of cheesy first-person narrative. These are crimes, criminals and environments of an entirely different nature.

The plot is anything but simple, and readers may be initially put off by the complicated Vanger family tree that greets them inside the front cover. For what it's worth, I never needed to refer to the family tree, and I imagine most except the most retentive readers won't have to. Beyond this superfluous map, the novel begins with quite a paradox of reading conditions. I defy anyone to read the prologue and not be immediately captivated by the vague mystery presented. In contrast, the first few chapters past the prologue are enough to drive away all but the most devoted reader. It's an odd pairing, to be sure, but I encourage tenacity - the layers of this mystery may peel back slowly, but the payoff is worth the wait.

Any attempt at summarizing the novel runs the serious risk of spoiling all the fun, so suffice it to say that troubled journalist Mikael Blomkvist is offered an opportunity to solve a decades-old crime, and along the way teams up with a research assistant who is at once deeply troubled, yet undeniably brilliant. This is oversimplified, of course, but there is no way to effectively communicate the thematic depth of the novel without perverting the reading experience.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's raison d'etre is not only to scrape the white-washed veneer from the surface of Sweden's image, but also to explore the hidden malevolence directed at women from within the nation's bounds. At this, Larsson succeeds superbly by presenting a wide array of female figures. And while some of these may be physically and emotionally weak, most are intellectually and morally empowered to do something about the men who would subjugate them.

Long after the mystery at the heart of the novel had passed, I found myself not wanting to tear myself away from these strangely compelling characters. By deliberately standing aloof from his characters, and by presenting them in an almost simple, journalistic, fashion, Larsson imbues them with a psychological depth and realism they would never have otherwise. The mystery, it seems, has less to do with the enigma Blomkvist is hired to solve and more to do with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - or is that The Girl Who Played With Fire?

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