Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: The Magnificently Epic Tale Of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'

I can't remember the last time that I reviewed a best selling book. My tastes typically run to the obscure and offbeat, but after blazing through the enormously popular The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo over the weekend, I am moved to declare it the best murder mystery that I have read in years and on par plot-wise -- if not stylistically -- with the best that Poe, Doyle, Hammett, Crofts, Chandler and Christie produced.

More exciting still, Dragon Tattoo is merely the first volume of three books known as The Millennium Trilogy written by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (photo, below left). The Girl Who Played With Fire was recently released in the U.S., while The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will be released on May 25. All told, Larsson's books have sold 27 million copies worldwide.

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The hero of Dragon Tattoo is Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged financial journalist whose career has hit a rough patch in the form of a lost libel case brought by a powerful and corrupt Swedish corporate oligarch. The upshot is that Blomkvist will have to serve some prison time while Millennium, the magazine that published his investigative piece, is teetering on the brink of financial collapse because the oligarch has persuaded companies to stop advertising in the magazine.

Then, in one of the many plot twists that make Dragon
Tattoo such a page turner, Blomkvist is summoned to Hedeby Island in the Swedish north country by Henrik Vanger, an elderly old-school industrialist who persuades him to undertake an investigation into the mysterious disappearance and presumed murder of his brother's granddaughter, Harriet, nearly four decades earlier when she was 16. In return, Blomkvist will be handsomely compensated and Vanger will bail out Millennium magazine, which is run by the journalist's sometime lover.

Vanger believes that Harriet was murdered by a family member, while Blomkvist's investigation will have to overcome a classic locked-room scenario. This is because on the day that the teenager vanished there was a Vanger family reunion on the island but it was sealed off from the mainland because of a gasoline tanker crash on the only bridge.

Harriet had given Vanger a present of pressed flowers every year since she was eight years old, but on his birthday the year
after she vanished he again got pressed flowers and continued to receive them each year, sent from various parts of the world by Harriet's killer to torment him.

Despite the hostility of members of the Vanger clan who resent Blomkvist's presence on the island, he eventually makes progress on this coldest of cold cases, but not until he reluctantly enlists the help of young Lisbeth Salander, a punk computer hacker and genius with serious authority issues (and a dragon tattoo), do the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.

Salander is a sort of anti-Pippi Longstocking and she and Blomkvist make an unlikely but fascinating duo, a sort of dark Nick and Nora Charles, as they find the shocking answer to what happened to Harriet Vanger.

I won't be giving away too much by noting that the book is called Men Who Hate Women in its original Swedish edition or that the ending of Dragon Tattoo is anti-climactic. Larsson too often resorts to detective novel
clichés, but for this he probably can be forgiven since this was his maiden voyage as a novelist and he would have grown as a writer had he not died of a massive heart attack in 2004 at age 50.

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A film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released in Sweden last year and made its U.S. debut in March. The film was directed by Niels Arden and stars Michael Nykvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace (see photo atop this review) as Salander. Film versions of the other two books in Larsson's trilogy will be released later this year.

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