A cheesy, glossy yellow-green cover with a silly, pulpy-sounding title to boot I’ll admit it, I judged this book by its cover. Were I not assigned to read and review “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by the late Stieg Larsson, I would have just walked by it on the shelves and laughed. The back cover is littered with words from gushing reviewers like “mesmerizing” and “a blazing literary sensation.” Even so, if I were a casual book store shopper, it would be just a bit too silly for me.
It starts off slow, but it wasn’t long before I was caught. It wasn’t the style of writing (which, after translation, is functional at best) or the characters (who are sometimes hard to grasp as real). It’s the intricate way in which Larsson plots the novel, creating a book that keeps you guessing but never tries to fool you.
This novel is one of three in the Millennium series that Larsson left unpublished at his untimely death in November 2004. In this book, Blomkvist, an investigative journalist in the process of being convicted of libel, is hired by Henrik Vanger to find the murderer of his great-niece Harriet – who died forty years ago. Blomkvist takes the job, with no intention of actually cracking the case, because Vanger offers him (or rather bribes him with) information that will vindicate him of the crimes he has been charged with. When Blomkvist sees the case beginning to unravel he convinces Vanger to hire him a research assistant, Lisbeth Salander.
Salander (the woman with the famous tattoo) is one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across. Although she’s considered mentally incompetent by the state and has to go through a guardian to have access to her money, she is an incredibly talented computer hacker and has photographic memory.
Sexuality of all kinds is much on display throughout this novel: Blomkvist casually hooking up with a variety of women and, more importantly, many of the women are sexually abused.
Understandably, the original title in Swedish translates “Men Who Hate Women.” Supposedly, Larsson wrote this novel after seeing a woman named Lisbeth being violently raped. Frustrated with his inability to help the woman, he wrote this seemingly as a way for Lisbeth to get even.
Critical response to the overwhelming violent sexual imagery is varied. Some see it as a crusade against the sexual abuse in question, but others accuse Larsson of almost glorifying it by his vivid descriptions. Reviewer Laurie Penny notes that one of its themes is that “misogynist violence is appalling, even while it whispers ‘now here’s some more.’”
I understood and shared some of the repulsion, but I myself did not feel the descriptions to be overwhelming any more than the actions were. This story takes on the specific enemy of sexual violence against women, and is therefore required to show its enemy in its true form.
As a detective novel, none are more intelligently plotted. If you have the stomach for some horrific imagery and are able to trust that the author is not leading you in the wrong direction, then “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is well worth looking past its gaudy, distracting cover.