"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson
Larsson's 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' an unusual, smart thriller 030409 AE 2 For the CCW "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Story last updated at 3/4/2009 - 11:02 am

Larsson's 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' an unusual, smart thriller
The Alaskan Shelf

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

All at once, it seems, everyone is reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson. The book, published in Sweden not long after the author's death in 2004, was a huge hit in Europe, then in the United States in translation, and is now No. 9 on the Pacific Northwest Independent Bestseller List (we're always a bit behind).

It isn't hard to see why the book has been simmering on so many bedside tables. It is a wild ride, a compelling, smart thriller with enough twists and unusual characteristics to satisfy even the most avaricious book-lover. It is unlikely readers have encountered main characters or a plot quite like this one before.

The structure of the book itself is unusual: the real plot is sandwiched between dull discussions of financial underhandedness and details about the operations of the publishing world. Dry bread indeed. In the middle however, is a dark mystery, violent and unforgettable.

The story hinges on the disappearance of a teenage girl, presumed dead more than 30 years earlier. Her aging great-uncle hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced financial journalist, to see what he can find out about her death decades later, a task that involves getting to know some of the great-uncle's unsavory relatives. Blomkvist enlists the help of a young woman, Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant young researcher with strong misanthropic tendencies, and the two begin an investigation. From there things start to pick up and soon Larsson has whipped the plot into a fast clip.

One of the main themes of the book, and an element that may deter some readers, is the issue of violence against women. The author includes statistics at the beginning of each chapter about crimes committed against women in Sweden, and his biography indicates he felt very strongly about it. However, there seems to be an aspect of fascination, as there tends to be with many aversions, in his concentration on this topic; it is, after all, what makes the story go. In the end, it may be difficult to shake the impression these images leave behind.

Part of this may be due to the fact that the villains behind these acts of intense cruelty lack human subtlety - any humanity at all, in fact. If part of the reason we read intelligent crime novels, mysteries and thrillers such as this is to get a glimpse inside the twisted minds capable of serial murders, torture and other kinds of human depravity, and to increase our understanding, we are offered few such insights here. The evil-doers are basically sociopathic - and it doesn't give anything away to say there is more than one. Of course such people exist, but presenting the villains in such a similar, flat aspect seems almost a refusal to contain the idea that wickedness can be complex, and that such people are more than the personification of a characteristic.

The counterweight to all this darkness embodies that human subtlety in a different way. Salander, the young researcher, is a hero, but one who is seriously flawed and morally complicated. She makes the middle-aged Blomkvist look naïve, and her resiliency and ability to fight back against a wicked world is rarely in question. It is Salander that makes the novel work, bridging the gap between the evil and the good in action as well as spirit; she is the axle on which the story turns.

For those who get hooked, it may be impossible to resist checking in to see what happens to her in the next installment, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," due out later this year and the second of three in the Salander series.

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