I have long resisted the temptation to be drawn in by hype for a new book or film - I always thought it ridiculous that the pre-release press for Star Wars touted it as the new cult movie, even before anyone had seen it. Similarly I did not buy into the fad for Lord of the Rings in the 1960s; I did not read it until well into the 1980s,
So it was with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the effusive press coverage put me off when it was first published and I did not even read the blurb. As a result I rather imagined it as a literary novel. So it was only recently I overcame that resistance when I was searching for something to read while spending several weeks travelling.
As most people will know, unlike me it seems, that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is set in Sweden, in the main, and is a thriller rather than a literary work. That said it is well written, and translated, so it has pace and is not simply a shoot-em-up generic thriller. It has its moments of violent action, often serious and unpleasant but its characters are extremely well defined and have a complexity well beyond those in most thrillers.
The Swedish author, Stieg Larsson, was an investigative journalist as is his most visible character Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist is the character that draws the story together and it is his role that drives the narrative. However, the most important character is Lisbeth Salander who is the young woman with the dragon tattoo. She is a challenging personality but has incredible intellectual, and some physical, talents that are brought to the fore as the story progresses.
The story starts with Mikeal Blomkvist losing a court case for defamation against a major industrialist and going to prison as a result. The case comes close to taking Millennium magazine down but it is only the start of Blomkvists fight back.
Blomkvist distances himself from Millennium magazine as he will have to go to prison for a short sentence and wants to avoid being a distraction. While waiting to go to prison he gets a call from a retired industrialist with a strange request: to take a year to discover the truth, however painful, about the 40 year old mystery disappearance of the magnate's niece. Blomkvist is very reluctant even though the deal would solve his money problems at a time when he has taken a huge financial hit because of the costs and compensation he has to pay as a result of the lost court case. Eventually he is prevailed upon to do it and it brings him into contact with Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is seen by the authorities as socially incompetentt. It is certainly true that Salander has her own issues which overlap with Blomkvist's and as a result they form a rather unusual and at times strained partnership which is mutually challenging but necessary to resolve the underlying mystery and criminality.
Much of the story helps to explain Salander's troubled childhood and the abuse that made her who she is, especially when combined with the underlying issues with accepted social and communicational behaviour norms. Along with the complex but fast paced thriller storyline there are a lot of difficult ideas around society, misuse of authority and accepted social behaviour as well as the issues of abuse, especially of women and children. It can be read simply as a thriller but for the perceptive reader it will challenge simplistic views of its many other themes and perhaps even provide some insights. Between them Blomkvist and Salander are pursuing the same people but for their own, complex reasons. All in all it is a powerful and challenging story that will capture the reader; I read it one extended session late into the night.
The story is well written so the initial perception of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as having literary merit was not entirely false; it is much better than your average pot-boiler thriller. Even the necessary descriptive passages seem to draw readers forward and keep them engaged, I was not tempted to skim over them as the story relies on the underlying psychology and social commentary. This is a book for lovers of the psychological as well as those that love mysteries or fast paced action thrillers.
I enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so much that I immediately downloaded the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to my ereader. I have now read all the first four books in the Millennium series and reviews will follow.