The new year hasn’t even begun yet, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t scheduled for its British release, by upstart publisher Quercus, until January 10 (with Vintage planning a U.S. edition for next fall); but already I’m thinking this could be remembered as the best crime novel of 2008.
What’s most interesting about Tattoo is the vast array of characters with which Larsson populates it. Captivating, as well, is the unfamiliar landscape against which this yarn unravels to its unexpected and chilling conclusion. The two principal characters here are a disgraced journalist and publisher, Mikael Blomkvist, 43, and his 24-year-old partner, the enigmatic and deeply troubled Lisbeth Salander. In the spirit of the approaching year, let me make a prediction: This pair will soon join the pantheon of great crime-fiction protagonists.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo finds Blomkvist being hired by wealthy 82-year-old Henrik Vanger, a former corporate exec, to determine whatever became of Harriet, his brother’s teenage granddaughter, who vanished four decades ago from a family reunion being held on the Vangers’ private and secluded island. No corpse was found. No witnesses came forward. And no evidence of Harriet’s fate ever turned up. Her disappearance is a complete mystery; nonetheless, Vanger believes the girl was murdered by a member of his own clan. Blomkvist, in a bad odor since losing a libel defense against a Swedish industrialist, and seeing Millennium--the magazine he publishes--suffer as a result, decides to take this case on. His incentives? Vanger’s offer of financial assistance and his suggestion that he has proof of the smugly victorious industrialist’s corruption.
So begins this twisted tale of family secrets, dastardly motives, and compassion that transports Blomkvist and Salander from a desolate Swedish island during a frigid winter, to London and then on to Australia. It isn’t long before both characters find themselves as much the hunted as they are the hunters, and it will demand all of their combined skills to untangle themselves from the wickedness imbuing the events that have shaped the Vanger clan.
Larsson’s fondness for crime fiction is evident in the fact that his chief investigator, Blomkvist, reads the works of Sue Grafton, Val McDermid, and Elizabeth George. And he flavors this story with elements quite familiar from mystery’s various subgenres--a bit of courtroom drama here, suggestions of private-eye conventions there, plus techno-thriller intrigue involving Lisbeth Salander’s electronic skills and contacts in the computer-hacking community. Finally, what would a crime novel be without serial killing and horrific torture? (The most blatant nod to this genre’s heritage is directed at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, which did not surprise me, as Larsson’s work contains some very strong female characters; Lisbeth Salander, in fact, is one of the most original creations in the genre since Clarice Starling.) Fortunately, this author tries to hone a fresh edge on these traditions of crime fiction, and blends them in a way that is as mesmerizing as it is insightful.
Moved as I was by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I did a bit of research about its author. Stieg Larsson was a name familiar to me, though not from crime fiction. I had come across his writing through my interest in totalitarianism and extremism as it has shown up in human history. Human nature at the extremes is cause for concern, and we need people to watch those extremes. I think the Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke was spot-on when he said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Larsson, it seems, fought evil all his life by monitoring right-wing extremist groups in his native Sweden, as well as throughout Europe. I first read his work in Searchlight, a British periodical devoted to monitoring the politics of the radical right, particularly the neo-Nazi movement. I knew he had passed away in late 2004, at age 50, due to a massive heart attack. What I didn’t know then was that this very shy and reserved journalist was also a crime-fiction enthusiast, and to amuse himself he often wrote his fiction late into the evenings. Friends and colleagues, when they discovered that he penned tales of crime and intrigue, were amused and amazed, since he was tireless in his reporting as well as his devotion to exposing the sinister shadow cast across Europe by right-wing extremists (a passion that led to his life being threatened). How did he ever find the time to compose novels?
In the Larsson obituary he wrote for Searchlight, the magazine’s European editor, Graeme Atkinson, wrote that
He will be terribly missed by all who had the unforgettable privilege of knowing him, working with him and being one of his friends and comrades.Given my own reaction to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the book is already being turned into a film (planned for release in 2009). Disappointing, however, is the realization that Larsson produced only two more novels in his “Millennium Trilogy”: Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) and Luftslottet som sprängdes (Castles in the Sky). Quercus plans to publish both of those latter novels in Britain.
Stieg managed to pack a vast amount of experience into his all-too-short 50 years, beginning with his poor upbringing in the forests of northern Sweden. His horizons were unlimited and, after enthusiastically doing military service, he travelled widely in Africa, witnessing bloody civil war in Eritrea at first hand.
On his return to Sweden, he took up his profession of journalism, working as a news journalist, feature writer and brilliant graphics artist for the Swedish news agency TT. To his work he brought a razor sharp mind, and covered every major world news story as it broke and unfolded for almost two decades. His artistic abilities extended into the realms of painting and layout. ...
It is an alarming irony that Stieg was taken from us just as he achieved his greatest ambitions: the consolidation of Expo [and anti-fascist magazine he co-founded) and the development of its staff, and the publication of his crime novels--he had just signed a major contract to have a series of novels published. Those who read them will see Stieg’s integrity, fearlessness and sense of justice in his young heroine, Lisbeth Salander, though her ways of putting things right are a far cry from Stieg’s thoughtful and gentle manner.
If my own endorsement of Stieg Larsson’s work isn’t enough, consider the words of Christopher MacLehose, who manages Quercus’ new imprint, MacLehose Press:
Over time I have published David Morrell’s First Blood, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Peter Hoëg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow [aka Smilla’s Sense of Snow], and the Gold Dagger-winning crime novels of Henning Mankell, Arnaulder Indridason, and Fred Vargas. The sales of the Millennium Trilogy in Sweden far exceeded the fabulous successes of these wonderful storytellers and their central characters ... Every Swedish publisher I have met in the last months has been--and this is as interesting as it is unusual in the jealous world that is publishing--unstinting in their praise for the novels as every one of them has read them or listened to the tapes. There is no more reliable recommendation.This book shows how exhilarating crime fiction can be. Look for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--which already won the Crime Writers of Scandinavia’s Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel of 2005--to make a mark on international award nominations for 2008.