by Stieg Larsson
Viking Canada, 2008; 572 pp; $32.00
A disgraced reporter, a locked-room (or rather, a locked-island), a strange girl, and a dragon tattoo—all the elements of what could be either a really good or a really bad crime novel. Luckily for me, and all lovers of mystery, Stieg Larsson makes play of the elements of a classic whodunit without turning The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the first book of his Millenium trilogy) into a schlocky, roll-your-eyes-at cliché.
It helps that this particular murder mystery is set not in typical America, but in Sweden and as such all the characters are Swedish and sometimes eat wondrous meals of “open sandwiches of pickled herring in mustard sauce with chives and egg.” This is the kind of translation I like, one that is seamless in its interpretation of language, but doesn’t leave out the nuances of the original tongue. Just ignore the hideous and shockingly bright dust jacket before you dive in.
Back to the story. Our intrepid reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, is first seen leaving court after being tried and convicted of libel and defamation against one of the country’s largest financiers. Three items of note that let the reader know what’s to come are indicated at the beginning of Part I: the title “Incentive”; the dates “December 20-January 3”; and, the quote “Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be.
Blomkvist is lured into a yearlong job that takes him to the island community of Hedeby situated along the Norrland Coast and occupied by the Vanger family. The patriarch, Henrik Vanger, wants Blomkvist, under the guise of writing his biography, to solve the forty-year old murder of his niece Harriet. A Vanger Family Tree appears helpfully on page three. The girl with the dragon tattoo, however, is more elusive and although she comes into the story quite early by herself, it’s not until three hundred pages into the book (or June 18) that Lisbeth Salander and Blomkvist meet.
Larsson could easily have introduced the pair sooner, as per the typical he/she pairings in murder novels (every detective needs a girl-Friday), but he held off. And by holding off, he not only created tension and anticipation, but two distinct individuals—people we get to know through their own actions and foibles and not characters who we can only guess at by how they are reacting to each other. Blomkvist is a bit of a ladies man and Salandar is, well, I think that would be giving too much away.
Although I had guessed at the murderer early on, Larsson put up enough red herrings (haha) along the way that I couldn’t get at the motivation until he led me on an unexpected course. Not one of those surprise endings where a completely unknown variable comes into play, but one in which all the little pieces along the way add up to the big picture. A satisfying ending with windows left open for future exploration—pass the aquavit, I’m ready for another one.
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From Issue #51