Monday, September 29, 2008

Dark doings in the land of the midnight sun

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 28, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Think of Sweden, and what comes to mind? Ikea and ABBA? Bikini-clad bombshells? Meatballs?

How about dark secrets, sexual perversion and murder?

To those who read the country's best-selling detective novels, whether the classic 1960s Martin Beck novels of Maj. Sjowall and Per Walloo or the more recent Wallander mysteries by Henning Mankell, know the country is full of homicidal maniacs.

It is no different in Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Mikael Blomkvist, a fortysomething Stockholm business journalist and publisher of Millennium magazine, is convicted of libeling rich industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. He's forced to take a strange but lucrative assignment from Wennerstrom's rival industrialist, octogenarian Henrik Vanger – to investigate the disappearance of Vanger's 16-year-old niece in 1966 in the remote northern town of Hedested.

There he discovers that the Vanger clan has enough criminal perversions in its history, the least of which is Nazism, to make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, the twentysomething tattooed girl of the title, works as an investigator at a private security company in Stockholm. A pro computer hacker, Salander chooses to engage the world primarily through the screen of her iBook and pushes away everyone who might get close to her. Why? It keeps her safe. Slim and standing less than 5 feet tall, she is, as one character describes her ominously, "the perfect victim."

It turns out she's far from the only one in the book.

Despite its crime-story trappings, solving the mystery isn't The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's primary purpose. Mr. Larsson was an activist journalist; before he died in 2004, he edited an anti-racist magazine. He uses the novel to issue a cultural critique of Sweden. And he has much to criticize, spinning numerous subplots touching on such things as journalistic ethics, corporate malfeasance, sexual sadism, religious fanaticism, familial loyalty, misogyny and the right to privacy, to name just a few.

Understanding the subtleties of these issue-oriented subplots may be lost on American readers. Just following the myriad foreign words, names and places ("She took the tunnelbana from Zinkensdamm to Ostermalmstorg and walked down towards Strandvagen," reads one typical passage) is challenging enough.

That said, the strain of mentally maneuvering through the foreign milieu is part of the pleasure of reading a translated book (especially translated detective novels), where their very foreignness adds an extra layer of intrigue to the plot.

As fine, complex and rewarding a novel as this may be, my main quibble is that Salander, who is secondary to Blomkvist, really should be the focus, since she is by far the most interesting and distinct of the characters.

I fear not, for this is the first in a trilogy that was already delivered to the publisher. In the next, I'm told, the tattooed girl gets the starring role.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

The Girl With
the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

(Knopf, $24.95)

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