Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The last book of the year 2009

45. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Original: "Män som hatar kvinnor") by Stieg Larsson

First off: I hate the English title of this book. The original, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates to Men who hate women (which is also the title of the Finnish translation which I read). That is what the book is about, from single, off-track instances in the book to the quotes provided by Larsson from statistics about domestic and extra-domestic violence, to the actual case at hand. It also creates this magnificently sinister air about the book.

What most annoys me about the English title, though, is that it makes one of the characters of the book the focus. If you read the book with the original title in mind, Lisbeth Salander is an equal character to that of Mikael Blomkvist, whose is the main point of view in this novel. Lisbeth is a woman whose thoughts the reader hardly ever finds out, and for a good reason: her character is there not to be a romantic object of any of the characters (which is not to say that there is no sex...), but she stands on her own, yet in the background. She is the kind of person who would hate to be in the lime light.

And that's exactly what the translated title of the book does to her: lifts her out of the cast of equal characters to be the focus. Which makes the reader subconsciously raise her story line above anyone else's, which I don't think was the point of Larsson's. In interviews, he describes Lisbeth as "one of the characters", not the  main character. Can't blame the translator, I guess: Lisbeth is very interesting.

OK, but what is the book about?

The first of the Millennium trilogy, where Millennium refers to a financial magazine, begins with the trial of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who has been critical of other journalists for letting Swedish big name economists and companies off the hook without much criticism. He ends up sentenced in a case of libel, where his facts about the criminal activites of Hans-Erik Wenneström and his corporation turn out not to be true -- or at least, so it seems.

After the jury has reached this verdict, Mikael is contacted by a representative of Henrik Vanger, an 80-something CEO of Vanger companies,  who is looking for someone to solve a mystery that happened a good 40 years ago: he is convinced that someone in his family murdered his favorite niece Harriet during a summer event at their island, and he wants Mikael to spend a year at the island to read through diaries, notes and to find evidence through interviews -- all in the guise of being a writer of the magnate's family biography. At the end of the year, Mikael will be rewarded with additional evidence against Wenneström to bring him down. Mikael is not convinced that any foul play has been involved in Harriet's disappearance, as it seems to be an impossible case of a closed room mystery: Harriet has simply disappeared from the island, which at the time was even cut off from the main land by an accident on the bridge. Vanger is however convinced that someone in the island has murdered Harriet, and as an evidence he produces a wall full of small framed flowers: he receives one every year for his birthday from a different location in the world, and is convinced that Harriet's murderer is toying with him.

At the same time, Vanger's representative contacts an agency that is specialized in digging up dirt about people. Their best employee is Lisbeth Salander, who is a 20-some woman with a photographic memory, antisocial tendencies, and the means to hack into every system and find out anything. She is first hired to find out if Mikael is reliable enough to be hired for his detective work, but once Lisbeth finds out more about him and the case he is working on, she begins to investigate on her own until the two meet.

There would be so much else to say about this book, but that would be too spoilery. The story is not just a straight-forward murder mystery, but it also takes jabs at journalism, big businesses, Swedish mental health care system and legal institutions. Mikael and Lisbeth do not remain one-sided, easily described characters: Mikael starts out as a fairly boring, everyday man with a mission, but soon the story fleshes him out to a believable and interesting a character. Lisbeth begins out as a weird, quirky and perhaps even a dangerous girl who is not even given a voice for almost third of the book -- she is just operating in the dark and being observed (and avoided) by others. The reader gets to know her the same way everyone else in the story does. Once the story takes a path to follow Lisbeth after work, the reader finds out more about her and can make his or her own judgements on whether the observations made by others are true or false, or just a game Lisbeth plays...

If you are going to read a crime novel in 2010, please read this. It is amazingly good, even if one part of the ending is fairly predictable... All predictabilities aside, it's just a fun story to read. Also, to read a detective novel of a sort that really has an axe to grind with real-life societal problems is refreshing, for sure.

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