Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Title: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publisher: Books On Tape
Rating: WORTHY!

For a review of the Swedish movie based on this novel, Män som hatar kvinnor, see here

Review of The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

These novels are famous and I already read this particular one, but it was a while ago. I want to do the entire trilogy this time, and match it with a movie trilogy review.

This story starts in December 2002, in Sverige, known to us English speakers as Sweden. The original Swedish version of this novel was titled Män som hatar kvinnor which means "Men who hate women". The second novel in this trilogy is the only one to retain its original Swedish title, and that title has appeared in two forms in English due to the fact that people have no idea where to place apostrophes! Thus we've had both "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" (for dumb North Americans) and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" (for all actual English speakers)(reference wikipedia), each title meaning something slightly different. The third novel was titled Air Castle Blowing Up in Swedish, and the three together form the Millennium trilogy. Sadly, all of these were published after Larsson died in 2004, so he saw none of the success these novels have enjoyed.

In the novel, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, known humorously as Kalle (a name which annoys him - it would be like an American investigative journalist being called Nancy, after Nancy Drew), is judged guilty of libel, and fined as well as sentenced to three months in prison. The suit was brought by a very rich businessman called Hans-Erik Wennerström, about whom Mikael had written an exposé in his magazine, Millennium, which he co-publishes with his some time love interest Erica, who happens to be married.

Mikael is in process of contemplating and adjusting to what this significant set-back means to his life when he's contacted indirectly by Henrik Vanger, a retired CEO of the huge of Vanger Corporation. Vanger decided to hire Blomkvist based on a background check undertaken by Lisbeth Salander, a skilled hacker and investigator who has done research for him before. Salander excels at what she does, but comes with a host of baggage. She looks more like someone who would be found at a punk music concert than she does a top researcher for a detective agency; however, as we follow this story, we discover that Lisbeth is really no more screwed-up than any other character in the story when you get right down to it, and probably doing better than most, but her problems are far from over.

As Mikael travels north to visit Vanger and find out what this job offer entails, Lisbeth is tasked with investigating the case which Mikael just lost. The reason for this is that Lisbeth had remarked that she thought that there was something fishy going on there, and if she said so, there probably was. Lisbeth Salander is one of my all-time favorites up there with other great female protagonists which I've remarked upon in various places in my blog. More on this later.

Mikael ends up taking Vanger up on his job offer. His cover story is that he's writing a Vanger family history. His real job is to investigate the disappearance - the unexplained disappearance almost forty years previously - of Harriet Vanger, Henrik Vanger's brother Gottfried's daughter. No one has even come close to solving what is, in many regards, a "locked room mystery". Harriet was in the nearby town at the annual children's parade, then she came back to the island and sought to speak with her uncle, but he was busy. She disappeared, quite literally, after that, and no trace had ever been found of her.

Mikael takes up residence in a cottage across the street from Henrik Vanger's home and begins meeting with him regularly. Henrik delivers several boxes of evidence connected with Harriet's disappearance, which Mikael starts looking through. He also starts an affair with Celia Vanger, a middle-aged school principal who lives next door to Henrik. He can find nothing of interest regarding Harriet's disappearance but he makes real progress on actually writing the Vanger family history.

While he's having sweet sex on the Island, Lisbeth is raped on the mainland. Here's where there is a difference from the movie. In the movie, Lisbeth is attacked in the subway and fights off her attackers, but her laptop is broken in the process. In the novel, there is no attack in the subway. Her laptop is broken when she's securing her bike in a garage, and a car reverses over her backpack which she had temporarily laid on the ground.

I think the reason they changed it in the movie was to summarize Lisbeth's life history, which was one of intransigence on her part and abuse from others, of one form or another. But one characteristic was that she never backed down from a fight, not even from someone who would bloody her up pretty badly if she tangled with them. She was abused not only by other people, but by authority too, and part of the reason for this was that she would never cooperate with authority even when it would have actually served her best interests. She realizes this too late to change her early years, but not too late to change her future, and she refuses to see herself as a victim.

Since her old guardian died of a heart attack, and her new guardian, Bjurman, is a sadist and a control freak, she lost control of her own money, and was required to go to him to ask for the money to buy a new computer. She wants the best there is and cannot finance it from the money she has squirreled away at home. Bjurman begins fondling Lisbeth, convinced she has no power to stop him - and makes her fellate him. On her next visit, he makes her come to his home, where he handcuffs her to the bed and rapes her anally. What he did not realize was that she was recording this visit on a security camera she borrowed from her job at the Milton security agency where she works!

So the next time she sees Bjurman after that, she tases him and tattoos on his chest that he's a sadist and a rapist, applying some of his own sex toys to him in the same way he applied his self to her. Lisbeth then explains to him in detail how it's going to be: that she will never see him again unless she needs to for whatever reason. He will nonetheless file monthly reports saying she's doing great. He will turn over her finances to her own control immediately, and a year from now he will recommend that she should be given her life back, free from any guardianship. Either that or the DVD she made will go to the press and the police. She also takes his keys, informing him that she will visit him now and then, when she's sleeping, and if she ever finds a trace of another women in his home, she will publicize the DVD. Now she has control. We hear no more of Bjurman in this entire novel.

When Mikael returns from his jail sentence, it's well into spring. He gets out a month early and has an amusing visit from Erica while he's in bed with Celia, which causes Celia to quit their relationship. On the Harriet front, Mikael discovers something no one else has seen. He has dug up archive photos from the local newspaper, and in a series of these, showing the children's parade, he notices that while everyone else is looking at the parade, Harriet turns sharply and looks at something across the street, something which appears to shock or scare her. It was immediately after that, whatever it was, that she went to talk to her uncle, failed in that endeavor, and subsequently disappeared. Mikael also notices that there was a couple behind Harriet who were taking a picture at the precise time her facial expression changed. If he can only track down that couple, and if only they have that picture, he will be able to see what Harriet saw.

No doubt you know by now, but he does indeed track down the couple - one of them at least - and recovers the photograph. But he doesn't know who is in it. He returns to Hedeby Island to check on Henrik and gets chewed out by one of the family with whom he has had almost no contact, but worse than this, he gets chewed out by Celia Vanger as well, which quite startles him.

One of the most amusing parts of this novel is when Mikael discovers that his computer has been hacked, and he then learns via Henrik's lawyer that it was likely Lisbeth who did it. Lisbeth is quite flummoxed to discover Mikael outside her door one morning. This is the start of their working relationship - or should I call it a working relationship with benefits? Mikael tasks Lisbeth with finding out whether that list of names in Harriet's Bible is a list of murder victims. It is, and Lisbeth tracks down who they were along with an additional set of names which should have been on the list. The unanswered question is what does that have to do with Harriet?

I'm not going to go all the way into the solution to this mystery here. But the rest of the reading is awesome, and rest assured that not only is the main mystery solved, another is resolved along with it. Stieg Larsson knows how to write, and Lisbeth Salander is one of the most engaging and intriguing characters ever written, and I put her up there with the early Honor Harrington (not the late, boring, Honor Harrington), with Katsa, with Kitai, and with Molly Millions. I fully recommend this novel and shall now be happily moving along to the audio book version of volume two in this trilogy.

I have to warn you that the ending to this novel is very different from what was shown in the movie (that is, in Män som hatar kvinnor - I have yet to see the remade US version). I'm not sure why they chose to end the movie as they did, but the novel ends on a rather depressing and sad note. However, I fully recommend the novel, because (as I've indicated!) it is excellent, and the ending in particular is a much better read than the movie is a view. Now that I've completed this one, I'm very much looking forward to volumes two and three, which I have never read.

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