Crime fiction fans are frequently a talkative lot, and news of a phenomenally good book spreads very very quickly. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has been "the" book on quite a lot of people's lips for what is actually a startlingly short time since it was released - particularly released in English. Needless to say, the publicity has been pretty well universally positive. So reading the much vaunted book was an interesting experience. Often when a book is talked about so much, you can subconsciously approach it with just a little reservation - could it possibly live up to the hype?
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO undoubtedly lived up to the hype. But why? On the face of it, it's an interesting idea for a mystery. A 16 year old girl disappears - completely - from a "locked island". No trace of her is ever found - no body / no sign. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, 40 years later, is haunted by her disappearance. He believes she was murdered but how, by who, and where she ended up - he can't explain.
Mikael Blomkvist is an unlikely murder investigator. A financial journalist, he has his own problems with a massive fine and a jail sentence for the libel of Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. It's a guilty verdict that he believes is wrong, but he can't prove his side of the case. It doesn't hurt that Vanger is a life-long enemy of Wennerstrom and he may hold a key to proving Wennerstrom is corrupt. But before he will hand over that key, Blomkvist is contracted to seemingly write the story of the Vanger family. He moves to the same closed little island that is the family's base and whilst investigating the family story, he is really trying to work out what happened to Harriet.
Add to that the enigmatic and, well, flat out a bit weird character of Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker, declared mental incompetent, genius investigator, who is originally contracted to investigate Blomkvist's background for Vanger, she has issues of her own that she has to deal with. Her guardianship situation is complicated when her mentor falls ill, her physical and mental wellbeing is abused and threatened by the new guardian. But anybody who thinks that Salander really is mentally incompetent hasn't bothered to look long and hard at her. When Blomkvist and Salander team up, the truth, hidden by a few for a long number of years, is finally revealed.
On the face of it, the plot alone is enough to make THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO interesting, but there's a lot more to the book than just a well executed and nicely complicated plot (as well as some seriously clever ways of getting to the bottom of the story). The book also builds a set of characters - both the main characters and the bit-part players - and the details about their lives that encourages the reader to be involved with them. You care about them. You have a glimpse into their lives that engages you totally. Interestingly enough, they are all well-drawn. Even bit players aren't easily forgotten, even in the complication of the plot - they stand out. There are some elements to those lives that seem quintessentially "Scandinavian" - a rather laid back approach to sex and marriage being the most obvious of those, but there is also a vulnerability to those characters that really makes you care about them. And all the way through the book, you worry, just ever so slightly - or at least this reader did - worried almost constantly about Salander. Would you / could she survive and thrive? As the end of the book draws closer and all of the threads conclude, there is frequently a feeling that somebody - one of them - a character that you've grown to like - may not make it. And at the very end of the book, when you know everything, you're left waiting impatiently for the next book in the series (due in 2009) because you still just have this sneaking feeling.....
It's undoubtedly an amazing book. How lucky we are that there are 3 of these books. How sad that there will be no more than 3.
Stieg Larsson died suddenly after delivering them to his publisher - he did not know about the phenomena he created.