February 2012: This is my second time through the Millennium trilogy, so I'm going to try and keep this review short and to the point.
Everybody and their mother knows the story by now, or at least they should. Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced journalist, is hired by one of the richest men in Sweden to find out what happened to his sixteen year old niece, Harriet Vanger, who was murdered over forty years before. Lisbeth Salander, a socially introverted, genius hacker, collides with Blomkvist, and the two form an unlikely partnership. I first read the books back in February 2010, and since then I've seen both film adaptations (Swedish and American) multiple times. I am so familiar with the story by now that I've internalized it. I am completely unable to be objective -- as if I ever was able in the first place -- Salander and Blomkvist are real people as far as I'm concerned, and I think it's a damn shame we won't ever get to hear any more from them past book three.
For those of you who haven’t heard plot details — where have you been? — I’m not going to say any more about the plot because part of the joy the first time is the discovery of all the twists and turns. What I am going to say is that even though Larsson’s writing may not be stellar*, his imagination more than makes up for it. Lisbeth Salander is one of my favorite characters in literature, ever, and the ways in which he makes use of her to say his peace about the rights of the dispossessed — specifically the rights of women in male-dominated cultures, and the marginalization of the mentally ill and those that are perceived to be sexually or socially deviant — ultimately elevates the trilogy beyond mere thriller/mystery status. It’s the reason I can sit here and read it (or watch it) multiple times and still the story will have lost none of its power, despite the fact that I already know all the answers to whatever mysteries it contains.
*For instance, lots of people become annoyed when he starts describing in detail meals characters eat, or actions they take that are seemingly irrelevant. I happen to find this quirk of his endearing, and all of those "irrelevant" details are a part of what I love about his books.
Part of what fascinates me about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a first novel in a series is that Larsson kind of sneaks up on you with the point of it. You could very easily read the book and then assume that sequels will follow the pattern set up by the first one, and would focus on Salander and Blomkvist as a team who will solve mysteries like it in the future. Instead, Larsson mainly uses the story of the Vangers as an extended "meet-cute" for Salander and Blomkist, and to set up Salander as the protagonist. Her story is the real center of the trilogy. This book is as much about setting up the next two books as it's about itself. Larsson wasn't interested in creating a series of grocery-store mysteries. He was interested in delving into the nitty gritty of Salander's life, and all the meaty stuff comes directly from it. She is the mystery and the challenge, not some murderer du jour.
The last thing I want to say is that it puzzles me when people express their disdain for this series by saying it's misogynist. I have to wonder just exactly what kind of reading comprehension those people were taught in school, because these books are the very opposite of misogynist. Just because a story features misogyny as a theme, and characters who act in misogynistic or sexist ways, does not mean that story is espousing those misogynistic viewpoints. I can definitely understand people who simply object to the level of violence and dark sexuality that the book contains, but as far as I'm concerned, all that violence has a very salient point at the end of it.
And now I've gone and lied to you about this being a short review. Whatever, I'm going to go make an omelet.
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February 2010: Wow, this was awesome. On top of having a plot that's a weird mash-up between violent crime (think Law & Order: SVU), corrupt family saga, Raymond Chandler-esque mysteries (The Big Sleep comes immediately to mind), and high-tech thriller (ala Neal Stephenson and William Gibson), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two of the most well-rounded, interesting, and original characters I've ever read in a thriller. Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are flawed but likable, and the secrets they uncover are disgusting, riveting, and scary. It is large book that reads very quickly.
The title of the book in the original Swedish translates roughly as Men Who Hate Women, but the English title is just as apt. It's a pity that Stieg Larsson died before being able to complete more than three manuscripts out of a planned ten. Wikipedia tells me that an unfinished fourth manuscript exists, along with synopses for the fifth and sixth, so it sucks that he's dead (not only for him, because he's not alive anymore), but because I WANT TO READ THEM.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone. (Except maybe my mother.)