Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy, Part 1 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Millennium Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieg Larsson

(Blogger Note: This review was originally published in September, 2010 in "The LAMLight", the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine.  It is posted here in anticipation of the new American movie based on this book to be released December, 2011.)

            Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has become an international publishing phenomenon over the past five years.  The author’s tragic story adds a dimension to these novels which has played a part in generating enormous public interest.  Stieg Larsson was a political activist and the editor of a Swedish Trotskyist journal.  He exposed racist and extremist groups in his role as editor and journalist.  He was also an avid science fiction fan.  He was an admirer of such authors as Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky and Carol O’Connell and first entertained the idea of writing his own crime novels in the late 1990s.  He proceeded to write outlines for ten books.  He had the first two written and the third nearly complete before seeking a publisher.  After initial rejections he received a publishing contract in Sweden for three books.  In 2004, shortly after finishing the third novel in what has become known as The Millennium Trilogy, and before the first book was published, Larsson died of a heart attack at age 50.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in 2005 and by 2008 he was the second most read international author (behind only Khalid Hosseini).  By 2010, after publication of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, his novels have sold over 27 million copies in forty countries.  Stieg Larsson is also the first author to sell one million e-books on  In the September 5, 2010 edition of the “Lynchburg News and Advance” Larsson owned the top spot on the hard-back fiction list with Hornet’s Nest and the top two spots on the paperback fiction list with the first two installments.  His novels have won too many awards to list and continue to fascinate an international audience.  So, what’s all the fuss about?

            The trilogy really is one moderately long story (contained in Dragon Tattoo) and a second really long story divided between Played with Fire and Hornet’s Nest.  I decided to review them that way as well and so in this blog post I’ll discuss the first book and in the next post I’ll conclude with the last two.

            The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduces the two main characters who dominate all three books.  The first is Lisbeth Salander, a mysterious and socially awkward young woman in her twenties.  She intermittently plays bass in an all girl alternative rock band and works for a security company doing free-lance work.  Her main skill in this arena is her ability to hack into any computer or server with record speed.  She has very little affect, reacts inappropriately to social cues and, generally, is a misfit.  Although the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome is never used in any of the books, it is apparent that she probably has a variant of that disorder.  Interestingly, the author created the character after a conversation with some of his colleagues regarding what characters in children’s literature would be like as grown-ups.  Lisbeth, apparently, is based on a grown-up Pippi Longstocking as imagined by Stieg Larsson. 

It is in her capacity as a computer hacker that Salander meets Mikael Blomqvist.  Blomqvist is a journalist and co-editor of a monthly political journal (named “Millennium”) who is investigating a Swedish industrialist.  An article regarding this industrialist’s misappropriation of funds and involvement in international illegal arms trafficking is eventually published by “Millennium”.  Blomqvist is sued for libel and loses his court case, owing the industrialist reparations and sentenced to three months in jail.  While awaiting incarceration, Blomqvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, the patriarch of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families.  Henrik wants the journalist to investigate the disappearance of his favorite niece Harriett.  Harriett Vanger disappeared during a family meeting forty years earlier and was presumed murdered, although her body was never found.  Blomqvist takes residence on the isolated Vanger estate and enlists Lisbeth Salander’s aid in researching the family.  Quickly the two discover closets full of Vanger family secrets, including Nazi collaborators, religious zealots and general family dysfunction.  What follows is a very complicated investigation with unexpected twists and turns.  Various family members come under suspicion regarding Harriett’s disappearance.  Sinister attempts are made to thwart Blomqvist and Salander’s investigation.  The conclusion of this book reveals a serial killer who abducted and sexually molested immigrant girls over the course of many decades.  The complicity of members of the Vanger family and the reasons (and the culprit) for Harriett’s disappearance are revealed.  Some of the gory details of the killer’s actions were a little graphic for my taste.

During the investigation Mikael and Lisbeth become lovers and we learn a lot about both characters.  These details play key roles in the plot lines of the second two novels.  We learn that Lisbeth was confined to a mental institution between the ages of twelve and fifteen and still must report to a case worker because she is considered mentally incompetent by the state.  Lisbeth is also revealed as bisexual and completely unpredictable.  Mikael has a complicated love life himself, carrying on a long-term affair with his married co-publisher while having other lovers (including Lisbeth) at the same time. 

This novel is more than just the introduction of the two main characters.  The plot is fast-moving missing person tale, is surprising and holds the reader’s interest.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the only novel of the three which has a plot which “stands alone” and can be read without reading the other two.  The supporting characters are well developed also and are all interesting.  The descriptions of Swedish cityscapes and the more rural settings of the Vander estate are rich and reminiscent of the work of another Scandinavian author, Norwegian Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses). 

There are some troublesome aspects to this book, in my opinion.  I have talked to several people who have read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and steadfastly refuse to even consider reading the follow-ups.  First is the amount of graphic violent and sexual detail which I mentioned earlier.  I think that the most difficult feature, however, is the general disregard for the female characters in the book.   Ironically, Larsson’s original title for this manuscript was Men Who Hate Women.  Just as you wouldn’t judge English culture only on the writings of Ian Fleming, or American culture on the writings of say, Tom Clancy, then I don’t think you can judge Swedish culture based only on the writings of Stieg Larsson.  However, in this novel anyway, women seem to be held in low regard, viewed mainly as sexual objects and somewhat interchangeable and disposable.  The most extreme example of this is the serial killer who is identified at the conclusion, but some of the other characters (including Mikael Blomqvist) are guilty of the same tendencies. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an intriguing read with a plot that holds interest and unique characters.  The setting in Sweden is a plus and the writing is excellent.  Twenty seven million readers tend to agree.  If you are only going to read one of the trilogy, this is the one, but be prepared for a wild ride.

There is an excellent Swedish movie with the same title based on this book.  The movie follows the plot of the book fairly accurately, although they simplify Michael Blomqvist’s love life and confine his list of paramours to Lisbeth Salander.  This makes Blomqvist a bit more of a sympathetic character than in the book.  The movie also alludes to Lisbeth’s early mental illness issues, but the reasons for this are not well laid out and I think would be difficult to understand without having read the book.  Cinematically, the movie is stunning.  The movie brings the images from the novel of modern Stockholm as well as the rural countryside vividly to life.  The Vanger estate, in the movie, is particularly beautiful, filmed during the winter and spring seasons.  This story has also been optioned by one of the Hollywood studios.  It will be interesting to see if the American movie is nearly as good as the Swedish one. 

(Next post I’ll conclude with a review of The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.)

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