Before reading this I deliberately avoided the hype surrounding Stieg Larsson, first by accident, and then, once deciding to give him a go, quite deliberately. Invariably when an author's reputation soars to these sort of heights, especially when combined with Larsson's early death, expectations can be built up to an unachievable level. For once however, I suspect this is a case where you should believe the hype, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” really is that good.
Readers of crime fiction should be more than usually familiar with the context of Sweden, and the world portrayed here is more than usually Swedish, at times breathtakingly so, showing that Scandinavian crime fiction really is a lot more than an episode of “The Bill” with Ikea furniture. In terms of cultural signposts, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” probably resembles the Sweden of Liza Marklund somewhat more than that of Henning Mankell, more urbane, somehow grittier in terms of the flaws in Swedish society, and critically, a move away from the often too familiar police procedural.
The premise, a disgraced investigative journalist employed by an industrial magnate to solve the disappearance of his niece 40 years beforehand provides an engaging cast of characters and using unashamed cultural namechecks, offers an alternative take on a Dorothy Sayers style locked room mystery. Significantly however, the plot moves in such a way that the reader cares about what happens, can identify with most of the major characters, and can appreciate the method whereby the journalist, Blomqvist, gradually unpicks the mystery. Larsson pulls few, if any, punches in the telling of the story, unflinching in describing the true unpleasantness behind the crimes committed, and arresting in the way in which violence is perpetrated. Make no mistake, there are some very unpleasant scenes in this story.
The girl with the dragon tattoo transpires to be the only really problematic character. A troubled woman made a ward of the Swedish state (this in itself being a powerful expose of one the less savoury aspects of Sweden's caring' state system), Salander is computer hacker whose ability to see into people's most closely guarded secrets works as a mechanism for revealing what would otherwise be altogether too coincidental and serendipitous. Salander however is a little bit too much of an achiever. As a gnomish dweller of cyberspace she works, even if she is perhaps a little too effective (I'm open to correction from any cyber security professionals out there though!). However she often transcends this, more resembling Stefanie Patrick / Petra Reuter from Mark Burnell's “Rhythm Section” series, and here, credibility is stretched.
Other plot elements are left hanging, Blomqvist's relationship with one of the Vanger daughters ends abruptly and acrimoniously, with no real explanation. Is this a flaw or a true reflection that relationships do sometimes just end for reasons you can't really explain?
As a whole however “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fundamentally works. Okay, I read this on holiday, and books do seem to get read more quickly on the beach at Sharm el Sheikh than they do when they have to be fitted around the more mundane aspects of life such as work and commuting, but this is gripping to a miss meals sort of level. Larsson has created a universe I want to know more about, to the extent that there's an urge to find, almost at any cost, his next work, and a profound sadness that we will only ever have three works of his to read.