The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – Review

(the movie trailer)

Book Jacket:

An international publishing sensation, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.

Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pieced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.

You can read an excerpt here.


You would have to be living under a rock to have missed the buzz surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Chances are if you’re a die hard murder mystery fan you’ve long since gulped down all three books, but being more of a genre person myself, I only just finally got around to picking up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (well, the wait list at the library had something to do with it – it literally was out to the hundreds when I joined the queue). I was very curious to see if this book could possibly live up to the hype surrounding it. To which the answer is – yes, it can. This is not a perfect book, but it is an intriguing one.

I actually saw the movie (the Swedish version) before I read the book, and I have to say I’m glad I did. The movie is absolutely true to the book and the story is every bit as dark, brutal, and fascinating in condensed form. I’m actually not sure I would have liked the book as much as I did if I hadn’t seen the movie first (my review of the movie is here) – Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth Salander indelibly shaped the character in my mind. If you like a smart crime thriller and can handle some truly horrific scenes, go ahead and rent the movie version. If you like the movie, you will like the book.

What the book has over the movie is simply length, more time to build layers both in the investigation and in the unusual personal lives of the leads. Lisbeth Salander is truly an unique character – a genius and social outlier, a jaded, complex bundle who has her own personal code of justice. Throughout her life Salander has been abused in every possible way, and never once did she consider herself a victim. She takes hit after hit but never gets beaten down. In comparison, Mikael Blomkvist is a more typical character, a honest journalist who takes on the big corporations, but his unconventional personal life keeps him from falling too far into familiar tropes. Blomkvist is our barometer, his normalcy and integrity grounds a story that is otherwise swimming in the darkest reaches of human nature. The narrative switches back and forth between Salander and Blomkvist, and I enjoyed spending time in both their heads.

This story is unflinching in its portrayal of violence against women. The book’s Sweedish title, Men who Hate Women, really hits the core of this story – abuse. I don’t believe Larsson’s intent was voyeristic or salacious, I think he showed the worst in order to fully realize the aftermath, and to demonstrate, via Lisbeth Salander, the resilience of women and their power to survive. Larsson’s career as a journalist started with reporting on right wing extremism and he went on to run two anti-fascist magazines – he had a painfully thorough understanding of people who are capable of violence against others. Lisbeth, in a broader sense, feels like his answer to those evil forces of the world – his crusader against sadistic violence.

Larsson’s career as a journalist also adds undeniable authenticity to Blomkvist’s investigation – all the little things feel so right, the vexing details, the tedious paperwork chasing, and the attitudes of those he questions. The investigation into Harriet Vanger’s death is a classic locked-room type of mystery, only in this case the scenario takes place on an island. The isolation of the location and strangling family ties create a wonderful sense of claustrophobic paranoia. The sheer number of Vangers does bog down parts of the narrative, but at the same time it keeps us from latching onto a suspect too easily. The clues are doled out slowly, but the mystery will keep you hooked.

So while this type of book is not my usual reading fare, this dark, riveting story is worthy of the hype. Honestly, you don’t have to be a die-hard murder mystery fan to enjoy this book. This is one phenomenon definitely worth reading.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Fyrefly Books says (of the Audio book):

There is absolutely no reason that I should have liked this book. I read straight-up mystery-thrillers very rarely, and it’s never been my genre of choice. I don’t have any vested interest in Sweden, or in journalism, economics, or business politics. I’d heard that this book was really good, but didn’t know much more about it… which in this case probably worked to my advantage. If I’d heard that it was a modern mystery up-front, I probably would have passed it by, and I would have missed out on one of the more engrossing books I’ve listened to all summer.

Michiko Kakutani (for the NY Times) says:

Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Mysterious reviews says:

There is both breadth and depth to Larsson’s novel with its slyly embedded references to crime writers Val McDermid, Elizabeth George and Sue Grafton. The breadth comes from the sweep of the story that encompasses a wildly dysfunctional Vanger family and the missing Harriet, side trips with Salander, the computer whiz and decidedly eccentric private sleuth – as hardened and as sharp as Swedish steel – and Blomkvists’s forays as he rebounds from losing a libel suit to investigate Harriet’s disappearance while rattling every skeleton in the Vanger family closet, satisfying his sexual appetites, and avenging the loss of his reputation and the near ruin of his Stockholm-based weekly newsmagazine, Millennium. At any one time there are several balls in the air, including a cruel annual reminder to Henrik of Harriet’s disappearance and a number of detailed exposes of worldwide securities frauds, but all masterfully juggled by Larsson, with not a bad bounce in the bunch.