“The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

                I’m always up for a riveting mystery-thriller; having heard this novel’s praises repeatedly sung as a enthralling new addition to the genre, I bought it for my family’s Hawai’i vacation.           

                Indeed, Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel is a riveting mystery-thriller. But it’s not beach reading. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is an intense tale of family intrigue, commercial corruption, sexual abuse, and serial killers. I’d say the novel is for the seventeen-and-up crowd only; I’m not surprised the film version is (I hear) grotesquely violent and quite unrated. In short, sensitive minds should not read this book. The novel exposes the evil and brutality rampant across Sweden—each section of the novel begins with a startling statistic about sexual abuse in Sweden today—and, in the process, evokes the same rage and disgust in the reader that Aeschylus did by describing Iphigenia’s murder in ancient Greece.

                Did you know that 18% of women in Sweden have been threatened by a man at least once? Did you know that 46% of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man? That 13% of women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship?  That 92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police?

                I know now. Larsson ensures his readers know not only the numbers, but also how it feels to live in such a country.

                Larsson chose his novel’s Swedish title—“Men Who Hate Women” –for a reason.

                As an exposé of a society’s injustices, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is the best I’ve read. As a mystery novel, unfortunately, it’s not quite up to standard. It’s an Agatha Christie-style murder. The crime takes place on an island from which no one can escape; the setting of Larsson’s Tattoo limits who could have committed the murder as in Christie’s And Then There Were None. But while Agatha tricked me, Stieg failed to deceive. I knew the great secret from the beginning.

                On the other hand, as a character study, it’s again one of the best I’ve read. The novel’s greatest fascination is its protagonist—Lisbeth Salander, the twenty-five-year-old, anti-social, bi-sexual, liberally-tattooed hacker genius who responds to the oddities of ordinary life and the atrocities of Swedish society in the most bizarre ways.

                (spoiler alert!)

                What does she do when her “guardian” rapes her? Go to the police? Flee the country? Buy a gun and shoot his head off? No. She buys a video camera, which she tapes inside a backpack as any good PI (which she is) can. She buys tattoo equipment and a taser. She returns to his house—i.e., asks for a second rape—and tapes the second rape. Then she returns a third time to taser him, chain him to his bed, and tattoos his crime on his stomach. She forces him to watch the video and then blackmails him. She’s quite willing to post a video of herself being raped on youTube to get what she wants: Freedom.

                To what depths has Swedish society fallen, when this is the way a woman responds to injustice?

                (spoiler over)

                Lisbeth’s behavior is completely unpredictable. Which makes her extremely likable, in spite of her five-year-old’s moral sensibility. Actually, most of these characters have infantile moral standards. Mikael Blomkvist, a forty-something journalist hired to solve the mystery, has sex with three different women throughout the novel, for instance. Oh, and he’s divorced. And a rotten father. But he’s sympathetic—the novel opens with him being convicted and incarcerated for a bogus libel charge. He’s immediately the underdog journalist defeated by the commercial superpower. As his daughter says, who doesn’t like a guy who’s willing to go to jail for what he believes in?

                And who doesn’t like a girl like Lisbeth Salander?

                Weighed down by oppressive scenes of violence, a plot line rife with sexual abuse, 664-pages of bland English prose translated from (I hear) a vivid Swedish, and a dozen or so carefully-placed f-bombs, the novel derives all its charm from its excellently-drawn main characters.  And that’s a lot of charm, considering The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and the last book of the trilogy, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest have both bivouacked on Barnes and Nobles’ top-ten bestsellers list for the past two weeks.

Four stars

****

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