Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Well into the middle of the story, Lisbeth Salander is wakened from her sleep when the doorbell goes off. For the reclusive Salander, it's a surprise that someone was knocking at her doorsteps at all; but to her dismay, it turns out to be Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist she had researched in detail as part of her job. Uncomfortable with each other's silence, Blomkvist opens up on the analysis Salander had done and casually remarks You have beautiful eyes. Salander responds You have nice eyes yourself, in what may very well be the first ever indication of a new facet of hers that was otherwise portrayed with chilling societal aloofness.

Staggeringly mounted on a complicated family saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original titled Män som hatar kvinnor literally meaning Men Who Hate Women) opens in December 2002 when Blomkvist, an intrepid financial journalist and a part-owner of the Millennium magazine, loses a libel case involving Swedish billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström.

He is sentenced to a 3-month incarceration and is ordered to to pay a hefty sum in damages. Facing ignominy and jail time, he decides to absolve himself of all responsibilities with the magazine, but is very soon offered a lucrative freelance job by Henrik Vanger, the affluent retired CEO of Vanger Corporation, to write his family history and crack open the case involving the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet Vanger thirty-six years ago, who mysteriously vanished into thin air during an unrelated accident in the near vicinity which cut off their estate from the mainland.

In return he is promised concrete evidence against Wennerström and so, unaware that Henrik had checked into his entire personal history by engaging the services of Milton Security (for which Salander works), Blomkvist begins to fumble for answers in the dark. Meanwhile, the twenty-four year old skinny Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant hacker and researcher with a tumultuous persona, is placed under the legal guardianship of a lawyer Nils Bjurman, who sexually abuses her to grant access to her allowance. But she does have her revenge when she tapes her next meeting with a hidden camera and threatens to damage his reputation unless he gives her full access to her finances.

Six months into the investigation, Blomkvist, after multiple conversations with Henrik and various other family members in the farm, uncovers a startling evidence that gives a totally new angle to the case. Later, roping in Salander as his research assistant, both comb through the entire family history in light of the new information and are convinced that they are on the trail of a serial killer. Who is the perp? How is (s)he related to the disappearance (or murder, as Henrik presumes) of Harriet? Will Blomkvist be able to clear his name and expose the unscrupulous Wennerström?

Translated to English by Reg Keeland, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is gripping and meticulously detailed, and as Marcel Berlin of the Times says, The ballyhoo is fully justified... The novel scores on every front—character, story, atmosphere, translation. The characters of Blomkvist and Salander are utterly vivid and their multi-layered-ness is one of the most striking aspects of the novel. Their relationship - which switches from initial wariness on Salander's part to conceding the fact she is a normal woman, with the same desires and sex drive of every other woman and finally falling for him - gives a stark insight into her traumatic and harrowing childhood.

Imbued with a seething commentary on violence and crimes against women, Larsson raises a pertinent point regarding the extent to which criminals and killers must be held responsible for their abominable actions which are mostly blamed on their upbringing or the society (as vehemently voiced through the character of Salander). Also being a journalist himself, the author takes a firm stand on the rampant corruption and the ethical and moralistic issues that surround the profession.

However, the choice of title is quite puzzling. While the original Swedish title was in tune with the subject material, the English title (taken out from a line in the book) seems to have been used to tone down its revealing nature. Furthermore, a questionably elaborate red herring involving the Nazis aside, the investigation in itself is a little far-fetched in that it took a completely new guy barely a couple of months to unearth the new leads when Detective Superintendent Morell, portrayed as a punctilious and thorough cop, or Vanger himself, who had been obsessed with the disappearance for half his life, couldn't manage to do the same.

Inspired by a true story (of having been a witness to a gang-rape of a girl when he was fifteen years old), Stieg Larsson's high-octane crime thriller is somewhat flawed but compelling, thanks to its riveting leads. That said, will I pick up the next book in the series? May be, but they can wait.