In 2008, the English translation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Swedish crime novel Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”)– The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–burst onto the scene, both in the United Kingdom and the United States—subsequently debuting at number four on the New York Times Best Seller list. Now, a full seven years later, and indeed 11 since Larsson’s death, it’s still easy to see why.
Despite a slow start, the first book in Larsson’s Millennium series (originally a trilogy but now expanded, somewhat controversially, by David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) rocks along at a rate of knots, the 500+ pages disappearing in a blur of intrigue and tension, as we unintentionally form strong opinions about the author’s brilliant and expansive cast of characters.
Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist under a lot of pressure. Having lost a libel case against influential industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, his reputation is in tatters, while his magazine Millennium is bleeding cash with advertisers pulling out left, right and centre. Then, a lifeline: Henrik Vagner, CEO of the once powerful Vagner Cooperation offers him an assignment. Blomkvist must live and work on Hedeby Island to—ostensibly at least—write a book on the colourful history of the Vagner family. His real goal is to resolve a mystery that has plagued Henrik for over 35 years: the disappearance of his granddaughter Harriet from Hedeby. Vagner offers him a ridiculous salary, convinced Blomkvist can unearth new details that will unmask the murderer and, against Mikael’s better judgement, he accepts.
It is in investigation that will take him much deeper into the darkness that haunts the Vagner family then he ever imagined. Soon, as the clues unravel, he needs a research assistant, and through this he is introduced to Lisbeth Salander—whose own powerful and heart-wrenching narrative we have been told alongside Blomkvist’s. Pale and slender, her slight frame makes her appear as 15-years-old—when in fact she is an adult in her own right. Lisbeth has had a rough childhood, in and out of foster care, suffering sexual abuse from those she trusts.
Salander is a brilliant invention on Larsson’s part: socially inept, folded within her own private world where her computer hacking talents get her through the day. Her interaction with Blomkvist is the real treat of this novel, as she learns to mature—and even trust. If that wasn’t enough, Larsson sends them to the very depths of hell as they begin to find answers to mysteries that have been left for decades.
It is no surprise that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become one of the most well-received crime novels of the 21st century. Larsson writes with an assured touch and in this reader’s eyes, the series only improves as it progresses. I think most of us will agree: it’s a crying shame that Larsson never got to write more books and ultimately see what a worldwide success the Millennium series became.