Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Splendid Swedish mystery novel

Stieg Larsson
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Knopf, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-307-26975-1
465 pages

Like the book's main character, the author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, was a respectable Swedish journalist who worked in Stockholm for a small news magazine. Alas, "worked" is necessary because Mr Larsson died at the age of 50 of a heart attack shortly before the book was published.

As the book begins, the main character, Mikael Blomkvist, has just been convicted of libel for a story he wrote about a Swedish industrialist, Hans-Erik Wennerström. Apparently, in Sweden, libel is, or at least can be, a criminal matter since he'll have to serve a shortish prison sentence and pay a significant fine. The staff of the magazine he works for is very small and he thinks it would be sensible to stay away from it for a while so as to avoid damaging its reputation further. So he's a bit at loose ends. Just then he's offered a freelance job by a different Swedish industrialist, Henrik Vanger. Or, more exactly, he's offered two jobs and an additional inducement. Henrik Vanger wants him to write a tell-all biography of the Vanger clan. But that's just the cover story. He really wants Mikael to investigate the unsolved disappearance of his grand-neice, Harriet, which took place nearly 40 years previously and which he has been obsessing about ever since. As an added inducement, if Mikael finds the answer, Vanger will provide him with evidence of impropriety by Wennerström. And so our reluctant detective begins poking around the town of Hedeby in rural northern Sweden.

Because he's a fan of detective novels and because of the circumstances of Harriet Vanger's disappearance, Mikael refers to the mystery as, "A sort of locked-room mystery in island format" (p. 78). But his investigation doesn't proceed all that much like the investigation in an ordinary detective novel. It's more like the sort of careful and patient research done by an investigative journalist. Which makes sense of course. That's one of the things that makes the novel interesting. Another is the character of Lisbeth Salander, an ace investigator and goth who is about as much outside the mainstream of Swedish culture as Mikael Blomkvist is in it.

The narrative is not speedy. But I never wished for it to go faster because there was always some new and interesting element of Swedish atmosphere or culture or history coming up. It is interesting to observe though Mr Larsson's story how Swedes speak and remain silent. You do not imagine these characters gesturing vigorously as they talk.

For example, it's easy to imagine a Swede saying gently, "He's not the most positive person anyway" (p. 49). Or take, "She turned to smile at him -- for the first time with warmth. Then she was gone" (p. 153). Or, "He wore a yellow shirt, narrow green tie, and comfortable dark-brown suit" (p. 212). And then there's the time when someone is invited in to dinner at the spur of the moment and we're told, "Anna produced a great quantity of bacon pancakes with lingonberries" (p. 221).

The careful and unhurried narrative matches (what seems to me to be) the careful and unhurried Swedish culture it's set in. And that turns out to be a very fine way to tell a mystery. It's a shame that Mr Larsson finished only two more books before his death. But I very much look forward to reading them.

Mr Larsson is generally very well served by his translator, Reg Keeland. The translation is into British English, but I think that few Americans will be put off by the occasional "decamped" or hyphenated "no-one". "Tunnelbana" might have been usefully rendered as "metro" or "subway" (for Americans) though I rather like the word. And "exiguous" (p. 181) would have been just fine as "very small". Also, "Norsjö was a small town with one main street, appropriately enough called Storgatan..." (p. 282) will not actually seem especially appropriate unless you know Swedish or look up "Storgatan" and find out that it means "Great Street". But those are quibbles.

Posted: Sat - February 21, 2009 at 06:54 PM   Main   Category: