Revisiting The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Posted on 7th August 2015 by Rob Chilver
With a new installment in the Millennium series due soon, bookseller Rob Chilver goes back to where it all began.

For me, it all began with a chunky paperback with a bright red cover. I first heard about Stieg Larsson’s novel just after I became a bookseller, as customers who had read it talked about it with a burning passion. They told me that this was I book I must read so, drawn in by excellent word-of-mouth, its distinct title and an equally intriguing cover, I gave it a try.

Back then it was hard to imagine what was yet to come. Now it's fair to say that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has passed over into the mainstream, becoming a phenomenon that is seared into the public's consciousness. Three books, three films and a Hollywood remake have made it a recognisable and much-discussed series. Add to that an author seemingly cut down in his prime, sadly passing away back in 2004 and never seeing the success of his three books, only increases its mystique and reputation.

Revisiting it all these years later in preparation for the release of The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz, a continuation of the Millennium series, has been an enjoyable and exhilerating experience.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the few books that have kept me up at night and I can still see why. As I read on late into the night, something within it got under my skin and kept me turning the pages, always wanting to read just one more chapter. Now I can see that it was a combination of the memorable characters, the great sense of place and the central mystery itself that drove me forward, always wanting to read that little bit more.

The book is named after Lisbeth Salander (at least it is in the UK - the title was changed from the generic and vague, yet still sinister Men Who Hate Women in Swedish). It's after around thirty pages that sees the introduction of the now legendary title character - but at first appearances Lisbeth is cold, distant and harsh. As time goes on we get to see what a vulnerable, intelligent and strong character Lisbeth really is as she vows to fight injustice wherever she sees it and wishes to correct the wrongs that society has inflicted upon those unable to fight back themselves.

An equally strong character but of a much different mould is the campaigning journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  The book begins with the slow burning details of Blomkvist's court case, setting him up at a low point as he battles to save his reputation and Millennium, the magazine he co-founded. A prison sentence awaits him and from here we move on to the central mystery itself and the introduction of the Vanger family.

It is around the halfway point of the book when our two protagonists finally meet and the story takes off in a new direction. As Blomkvist himself points out, the plot centres on a classic ‘locked room mystery’ as they search for what happened to the young Harriet Vanger after an accident shuts off the Vanger family island from the rest of the world. She somehow vanishes, either taking her own life, murdered or simply disappearing. Where did she go and what happened to her? Lisbeth and Mikael begin to investigate and what we think is an intriguing ‘what-if?’ story takes on a much darker turn.

Alongside this, punctuated throughout the book are statistics detailing the violence and abuse against women in Sweden. Along with Lisbeth's storyline it paints a harsh portrait of Sweden to our foreign eyes, exposing a dark side that hides away from our usual gaze. Larsson's background as a journalist shines through, weaving in the facts amongst the fiction, to leave readers appalled and informed.

Returning to the book was great fun as I relived every twist and turn along the way. Some parts have dated, in particular, the technical parts relating to Lisbeth’s murky nature of work amongst the hacking community, but these can easily be ignored. What has not dated is the book’s considerable strengths. There remains a great hook of a story and a central character that is still as intriguing and as fresh as when she was first written.

Next week we'll revisit The Girl Who Played With Fire, where Lisbeth’s murky past returns.


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