Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

8 March 2011
First third – Part 1 and into Part 2
I’ll be as quick as I can. Main characters: wounded journalist, 40s, apparently the victim of a set-up that has left him losing a libel case and facing a 3-month jail sentence; his editor/lover, posh, capable; the girl, 24, extremely troubled childhood, genius, but poses as the opposite; old man, rich former industrialist, obsessed about the death of his beloved niece. Plot: ah, plot….

Larsson sets several hares running. In the Prologue: the annual arrival, on the birthday of an old man, of a pressed flower in a frame. It’s chapters later, as Henrik Vanger tells his story to Mikael Blomkvist, that we find out why he weeps each year: his niece had given him a pressed flower each birthday and, after a single gap, he’s received one every year for 36 years. She died aged 16 in circumstances that Larsson is happy for Blomkvist to refer to as a typical closed murder mystery: on the Vanger island, she simply disappears while the bridge is blocked by an oil-tanker accident. Ok.

Larsson has to get a few other things established first. Blomkvist had written his article about Hans-Erik Wennerström, a dodgy financier, in good faith. He’s tipped off by someone he meets in circumstances as coincidental as the oil-tanker accident in the other story: a former school-friend bumps into him on a sailing holiday Blomkvist had never intended to go on and tells him. (Of course, either or both of these coincidences might be no such thing, although the elaborate planning that would have been needed in each case is mind-boggling.) He’s convicted, so there’s a reason for him to lie low for a while. Erika, his editor/lover, hates the idea of him going off to the Vanger island when the magazine that is their joint project is going through difficult times, but hey. He goes.

The other thing is Lisbeth Salander. She’s the girl with the tattoo, given a dogsbody job as a favour by a security firm whose remit seems to be wide enough to cover any kind of investigative project. She’s sullen, looks like a cross between a goth and a punk, and often forgets to turn up for work. But, as her well-meaning boss is about to fire her, she shows how she could do the job of any of his investigators better than they can. Go figure. Like her chess-playing ability – since learning the rules she’s never lost a game, not that she cares anyway – we simply have to take her planet-sized IQ as a given. Ok, again.

Vanger’s lawyer asks her to investigate Blomkvist, which she does. He’s clean. The lawyer is so impressed by her – or, perhaps, by the contrast between how she looks and what she really is – that he asks her to investigate Wennerström. She begins to do this, but is taken off the project after three days. The possible link here is that one of the carrots that Vanger has dangled before Blom is the promise that if he works for him for a year, he’ll tell him enough about Wennerström, who used to work in his company, to blow the crook sky-high. (The other carrot is a salary of 2,400,000 kronor, about £240,000.) So we understand why the lawyer might want some dirt, but not why he’s pulled her off the case. One last thing about Salander, as she always referred to in the text: she’s a ward of court despite being in her 20s, and she has a new, jobsworth, authoritarian-seeming guardian to replace the old, liberal one. She hates him, and is not good at suffering fools gladly.

Finally. The title in Swedish is Men Who Hate Women, and both Parts 1 and 2 have opened with statistics about how many women suffer violence at the hands of men. In the first investigation Salander undertakes, in order to prove her ability, a women’s refuge is one of he places she knows about. Her own mother, in her 40s, is a wreck in a nursing home, although we don’t know why. And when she was younger, a charge against Salander for assaulting a man is dropped when she alleges he was molesting her. (This incident comes up in her own thoughts – Larsson is happy to go inside anybody’s head if it helps to move the plot along – so we’ve no reason to disbelieve her version.)

Anyway, it’s early January now, Blom is on the island, his editor/lover isn’t answering his calls and… we wonder how the threads are going to come together. Vanger’s motive for employing Blom seems preposterous: he knows Blom is no investigator, knows there is almost no chance that he will uncover anything about his niece’s death, and yet will pay him good money to do it. The pretext is that Blom is ghosting Vanger’s autobiography, and will get to know the Vanger family. The old man hates almost all of them, suspects it was one of them who murdered the girl… so, who knows?

9 March
To the end of Part 2…
…just over half-way through, and I’m feeling soiled. Somebody – Larsson himself, perhaps – must have decided there hadn’t been enough sex and violence, so… we get nice sex – Blomkvist finally making up with Erika during what also turns out to be a weekend of business, Blomkvist realising what the reader did chapters ago, that the young-looking 50-something is definitely up for it – and nasty sex involving the creepy lawyer and his pursuit of Lisbeth. (Just because Larsson refers to all his male and female characters by their surnames, presumably according to his own feminist agenda, doesn’t mean I have to.)

All we get of Lisbeth in these chapters is enough back story, Larsson hopes, to make her distrust of the police and social services seem plausible, and her meetings with the creepy lawyer. First it’s inappropriate questions about her sex-life, then it’s forced oral sex in the office – otherwise she won’t get access to the money she needs – and then it’s the full sadism schtick in his own flat. In order for the set-piece scene of her revenge to work, Larsson needs him to be a monster… so we get descriptions of what he does to her ranging from the sketchy to the pornographically detailed. Which begs the question: how are we supposed to feel when Lisbeth’s treatment of him is just as bad? Perhaps the moral void at the centre of this otherwise not unattractive character will become an issue.

What else? Blom finds out more about the family than any reader – this reader, anyway – can hold in his head. There’s a thread of fascism going through some of them, including the ever more mad-sounding brother who has moved back to the island some years before. Henrik himself married the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish woman, so you can guess how well that went down. There’s another problem: under the terms of the will left by one of the founders of the company, everyone in the family has a stake, and a voice in the running of it.

And the biggest plot-movement in the Blom-Vanger thread is the offer Vanger makes to become a partner in the magazine. He says he likes its radical agenda, doesn’t want special interests – everyone knows he means Wennerström – to squeeze it to death by frightening advertisers away. The announcement about this, and the news that Blom is to become a partner again, is made on the day that Blom begins his jail sentence. The media see it as a declaration of war against Wennerström. Lisbeth, overhearing the announcement on the radio, wonders what’s going on. She’s been to see her boss, has found there’s no work for her at the moment, and she thinks she might look into the connections between Vanger, his lawyer and the man who sent Blom to jail.

Psychology note. I don’t believe in Lisbeth. She seems like some sort of autistic savant, which is ok, but the way she has slipped through the social services net is just too convenient. Larsson needs a maverick, a loose cannon with the IQ of a Sherlock Holmes – but he also needs her to have succeeded for 24 years in hiding her intelligence from every single teacher and psychiatrist who has ever had dealings with her. I could believe in the planning of her revenge as the work of a psychopath, but that doesn’t fit other aspects of the profile. I guess Larsson is simply presenting her in all her dysfunctional weirdness, as I suggested before concerning her intelligence, as a given. Ok.

No,it’s not ok. Never mind the simplistic take on psychology, what about the simplistic take on sex?I’ve mentioned (in parenthesis, admittedly) Larsson’s feminist agenda. I have no problem with this, or with the fact that a ‘closed room’ thriller – Blomkvist uses the phrase again to remind us this is only a fiction – signals the seriousness of its purpose for us with those statistics about violence against women. But that’s no excuse for any sex instigated by men to be at best suspect – Lisbeth’s rather kindly boss gives it a half-hearted try, to her disgust – and at worst heinous, whilst all the pleasant sex is instigated by women. And since when was casual sex so harmless? Erika’s is an open marriage – did I mention she was married? – but her husband is perfectly ok with her affair; Cecilia used to be a battered wife, but now she’s confident enough to have Blomkvist stroke her foot – soon followed by the rest of her – the second time they meet. Let’s hope things turn out a bit more problematic soon, because so far the plot is the only thing that isn’t as straightforwardly assembled as a Lego model.

13 March
Part 3, Chapters 15-18
I don’t know why I’m complaining about the psychology. It’s a whodunnit, for God’s sake, not Anna Karenina. In fact, as Larsson gets his plot moving again – after treading water for Chapter 15 to get Blomkvist’s prison sentence and a couple of other things out of the way – I was reminded more of Dan Brown’s preposterous The Da Vinci Code. There are weird psychologies in there that are even less believable than in this one. Mind you, I hated it.

Plot. Early on I suggested that Vanger must have some agenda he’s not telling Blom about, because there would be no point in hiring an amateur to re-investigate a case that’s been dead for 36 years. (It’s 37 now.) Well, I forgot what sort of novel I was reading. Blom makes three big discoveries – Larsson tells us this before telling us what they are – and the accumulations of luck, happy combinations of circumstance and intuition are what reminded me of the outlandish things that Dan Brown asks us to swallow. I’ll shut up about it now.

Blomkvist has another look at a photo album of the fateful day in the summer of 1966. Something snags on the workings of his well-honed journalistic intuition – you see, he’s not an amateur after all – but he can’t work out what it is. And then he can: Harriet, the missing girl, is in a photo of an event earlier in the day which nobody has paid much attention to because it’s before everything went pear-shaped. She’s in the nearest town at a parade, but as everybody else looks at the clowns, she’s looking surprised and troubled by something off-camera that she’s obviously just seen. We get about a chapter’s worth of business to get him to the photo archive of the local newspaper office (owned by Vanger’s company, luckily), scanning the negs into his own laptop (he’s good at this, luckily) and building up a jerky movie sequence of the girl. She’s definitely seen something.

Discovery No 2: It’s known that Harriet tried to see Vanger that afternoon, but he was busy with the tanker accident. It’s also been noticed previously that in only one of the photos taken at the time the window in her room is open. Blomkvist finds other pictures – and in one of them a blurry face can be made out at the window. With Photoshop – he knows how to use it, luckily – he sharpens the image, gives it more contrast, works out how tall the figure was from her position… and it’s What’s-her-name, the woman he’s been having a polite shag with a couple of times a week. (I never see things coming in books like this, but I did see that one.) So, what’s her game? Why was she all over Blomkvist shortly after she’d guessed why he was really on the island? Not agenda-free sex after all, but something – cue sinister music – more sinister?

Discovery No 3: Harriet had left some names and telephone numbers in her diary – she kept a diary, luckily – that nobody has been able to work out. But at the station after a brief visit to the island on her way to a revivalist meeting, Blom’s religious daughter tells him to get rid of the morbid quotations. Eh? She’s seen the numbers and realises they’re Biblical references, but it takes Blom a while to understand this. When he does, he goes to Harriet’s Bible in which – so there are no rubs and botches – she’s underlined some dark passages in Leviticus referring to punishments to be meted out to those transgressing society’s laws, such as women who commit bestiality or adultery. This rings a bell for the reader – those solemn statistics about men’s treatment of women that punctuate the text, that sadistic lawyer…

…but the punishment rings a different bell for Blomkvist. In Part 1 (or 2) he spoke to the copper in charge of the original investigation. (Vanger always phones this man when he receives his annual pressed flowers.) The inspector, now an old man, describes how every copper has one unsolved case that always gnaws away at them, and – and, for no reason, he mentions another one from before his time that used to gnaw away at a colleague of his. And reader, this is the one that sparks that little intuitive connection in Blomkvist’s head. The manner of her death matches the punishment described in one of the Biblical verses – and the reference in Harriet’s diary has the initials RJ next to it. Rachel Jacobson, burnt horribly to death in the 1940s. Gasp.

This is taking too long. More stuff, quickly. He tells Vanger and the inspector (missing out the detail of his blurry lover at the window), decides he has a long-term serial killer on his hands – still alive if the pressed flowers are any clue – and needs a researcher to help him sift through archives to find the other unsolved cases referred to in Harriet’s diary. Guess who. There’s more business to get Blomkvist and Lisbeth working together. He invites himself into her flat in a mirror-image gesture to match the way she invited herself into his computer files – she’s a consummate hacker, if we hadn’t worked it out by now – and instead of using a taser on him she finds, my goodness, that she rather likes him. She finds him unthreatening which, in Larsson-land, is the greatest compliment a man could ever receive.

One last detail. Luckily, behind Harriet as she looks off-camera at the parade, there’s a couple taking a photo of what she’s looking at. So, somewhere, there’s a photo of… etc. In our universe that would be that, but it isn’t, so Blomkvist is able to search through the archive for the couple until he finds them getting into their car. He knows the district from the number-plate; if only that sign on the back wasn’t so blurred – but, hang on, with a bit of tweaking… etc. He’s got the name of a small business he can start to look for. (I’ve used the word ‘luckily’ five times today. I should stop doing that now.)

14 March
To the end of Part 3…
…and, with the whole of Part 4 yet to go, poor old Blom is about to be murdered in cold blood by a sadist – who isn’t the same sadist Lisbeth had to sort out in Part 2. What a lot of sadists there seem to be all of a sudden – and we’re still wondering if the first one is going to turn up again to get his revenge. These sadists, eh? Unpredictable. To reach this point, the plot has jogged along – and Larsson has given Lisbeth a new USP to go with all the others: she has a photographic memory. Ok. (During part 2 I suggested that Larrson had given Lisbeth the IQ of a Sherlock Holmes. Now I realise I was really referring to the character in the updated BBC version. I bet its creator Mark Gatiss had Lisbeth in mind when he created his Asperger’s-suffering genius with a talent for computer hacking.)

Anyway, plot. I forgot to mention that after Blom tells Vanger about what he’s discovered, the old man has a big heart attack and spends some time in intensive care. He’s recovered slightly now. Blom follows up the couple taking photos: after stubby little dead-ends and false leads he finds the woman and the relevant photo, which is too blurred for him to identify anyone except for a rather distinctive bit of his clothing. Meanwhile Lisbeth is following up the puzzle of the names and numbers – and realises that in the middle of the 20th Century there was a serial killer that the police never identified as such: there was no ‘signature’ unless you know about the biblical link, and there are years separating most of them.

She comes to Blom’s cottage to report back, they share ideas… etc. He treats her respectfully, and doesn’t explode when he finds her reading his private computer files. In other words, he’s carrying on pressing all the right buttons for her, and eventually she surprises him by getting into his bed. Hands up if you didn’t see that one coming. No? That very night – she’s been there over a week – the nasty stuff starts. Or, rather, the bitching that some family members indulge in whenever they see Blomkvist – including a silly hatchet job on him in the local rag they own – turns into a real threat. The cat that wanders around and often visits the cottage won’t be doing that any more, because it’s been dismembered in a way that echoes details in two of the murders. In other words, as if we didn’t know, this is not a cold case at all.

Next. Blomkvist goes for a run – he’s got into that during the summer – and, gasp, somebody fires a rifle at him, twice. A shard of concrete from the wartime fortification he’s standing next to cuts his scalp badly, but he’s ok. Phew. And he manages to get down the hill without being killed. Phew, again. But he’s fed up now and decides he’s going to confront Cecilia: why did she open Harriet’s window? Cecilia is adamant that she went nowhere near, and sounds sincere. Eh? It turns out, after Larsson does that thing again where Blom spots someone with another camera, that there are more pictures – including one of Cecilia with her sister, who looks just like her. Ahh. It must have been her at the window. (She lives in England now, but was over for a visit earlier in the summer.)

And the photos show the man in the distinctive top: it’s Martin, Harriet’s brother, who has so far been the only one in the family not obstructing Blomkvist at every turn. He’s been in charge of the company since old Vanger gave it up, and usually comes across as the most sensible and least unpleasant of the lot – but all along he’s been lying: he was in the town just over the bridge on the day of Harriet’s disappearance when he’s always said he wasn’t. But he can’t be a suspect: the earliest murders took place either when he was in infancy or before he was born. Except…

…meanwhile, as they say, Elsbeth is making other discoveries in the family archive. She hasn’t got her phone switched on – it’s an annoying habit she has when she’s concentrating – so she hasn’t told Blomkvist that most of the murders took place near Vanger plants where either Martin and Harriet’s father was visiting. He was the alcoholic who was found drowned a year or more before Harriet’s disappearance, so he’s not a suspect – but one of the murders took place near Uppsala when Martin himself was at the university there. Like father, like son? Or have I got this wrong?

Two last things before Blomkvist goes to see if he can talk to Martin and gets himself into the clutches of a crazed lunatic. In the last day or two he wonders if the Pastor – the one Harriet must have been getting her religion from – might have had anything to do with it. He’s certainly not the one threatening them now: he has Alzheimer’s and spends most of the time in a mental fog. However… he gives Blomkvist a lead about the religious angle and – and yes, I do know about red herrings – he speaks about Harriet as though she’s still alive. But he’s just a befuddled old man. Isn’t he? Also – and along with all the talk about the Apocrypha this is where it really gets like Dan Brown – he and Elsbeth have visited the family crypt on a hunch. And it’s been used, recently, for animal sacrifices.

So it’s no surprise at all when, as soon as Blomkvist arrives, Martin quickly has him in his basement torture chamber and is definitely going to kill him. He’s veering between coherence – with talk about the magazine and his own part in it – and sadistic craziness. Blom’s only hope is to convince him that it isn’t only Elsbeth who has copies of the evidence, but he doesn’t seem to be buying it….

Well? This is all far more entertaining than the first half of the book, because we don’t have to pretend any more that this is anything but hokum. Psychology isn’t an issue – I’ve noticed that on those rare occasions when we’re inside Elsbeth’s head it seem almost normal in there – and plausibility certainly isn’t an issue…. Only the plot matters, and the plot is just a puzzle to be solved. What else would it be?

15 March
Part 4, Chapters 24-27
Now here’s a funny thing. There’s still about one eighth of the novel yet to go, and the mysteries have all been solved. Yes, Martin did carry on the gruesome habits he learned from his (and Harriet’s) father. Yes, Harriet is still alive, having fled the sexual abuse meted out by her father and brother. And yes, it was Cecilia’s sister who helped her to disappear on that fateful day. However…

…there are still a lot of loose threads left for Larsson to tie up. As I write, Blomkvist has just agreed not to publish any of it: the bad publicity would ruin the family and, no doubt, the business. Think of all those people’s livelihoods! Think of the children! (Or something.) Fortunately Harriet, who’s been living in Australia for decades improving the business she married into, would make a terrific CEO to replace Martin. Conveniently, he’s got into his car once Elsbeth has come to Blomkvist’s rescue and has deliberately driven into the path of an oncoming truck. And, equally conveniently, Harriet could leave her Aussie business in the uber-capable hands of her son, to whom Larsson has gifted an Oxford degree in economics and a law degree from somewhere else. And he looks like a superstar. (Blomkvist has met him.)

It’s Vanger’s lawyer who is putting all this pressure on to Blomkvist while Elsbeth is sitting at her laptop, hacking away in that way she has. She reminds them she’s there by suggesting that they agree not to report it – on condition that the company sets up an endowment to help refuges for women and girls who have suffered violence. All through these chapters she’s been vehement about this issue, and is more concerned with the living than all the dead – maybe two per year for 25 years – who met their ends in Martin’s basement. But this isn’t Blom’s only frustration. As promised, the lawyer tells him about the fraud perpetrated by Wennerström (remember him?), but it happened in the 1970s. Blomkvist nearly explodes: what on earth is the point of information that is outside the Statute of Limitations, and that Wennerström would no doubt be able to spin in his own favour anyway? Vanger must have known it was useless when he made that promise all those months ago.

Some time later (or is it straight away? I forget) he goes for a long walk. And Reader, Elsbeth has learnt enough about human relationships from this man to know that she should find him and comfort him. A day or two before, she left him forever – but turned her motorbike around after some hours and now she’s back with him. It must be, well, who knows what it must be? Whatever it is, it’s not all. As she sits next to him, she says she might have a cunning plan to sort things out once and for all – which is why Larsson still has all those chapters yet to write.

(Incest note. Rose Tremain’s art-house novel Trespass (2010) contains the story of – stop now if you might read it some time – how a father initiates his son into the regular sexual abuse of his own daughter, the boy’s sister. In that novel, neither sibling survives intact. Once the father is dead, the boy grows up bitter and probably violent, but he is not able to continue the incestuous abuse alone. The girl grows up tortured by guilt and never forms a proper sexual relationship. I didn’t like the novel, but it shows an author attempting to work within the limits of psychological plausibility… whereas in this one, beyond a nasty memory or two that she’s good at suppressing, Harriet survives more or less intact.)

16 March
Chapter 28 to the end
I kept wishing this had finished with the solution of the Harriet mystery. Larsson doesn’t so much tie up the loose ends as embroider them into something new and strange: the annihilation of Hans-Erik Wennerström. If, at the beginning of Chapter 28, Blomkvist could set out his dreams of revenge item by item, well, the rest of the novel is the ticking off of those dreams. First, he and Elsbeth work together to destroy the nasty man’s reputation. Later, working alone, Elsbeth destroys him financially and, because she’s that sort of girl, brings about his murder. Bizarrely in this novel about the corrupting effects of power, Larsson endows her with enough power to do absolutely anything she likes with Wennerström, just because she can.

I’ll be quick. As if. Lisbeth tells Blom that she’s already unearthed a mass of dirt about Wennerström. Through a series of plausible-sounding hacking manoeuvres – Larsson is always keen to lard the text with impressive technical jargon whenever her computer skills are in the frame – she and her nerdy friends have been able to set up a virtual hard drive to which all the traffic of Wennerström’s computers is now directed. Etc. etc. Basically, she waves her magic wand, or snaps her Super-computer-woman fingers, and Pouf! His whole empire is there before her. (Is it Blomkvist who later makes the remark that Wennerström must be an idiot to keep everything on a single hard drive? Well, duh.)

So anyway, Blom spends about six weeks locked away writing the book, with chapter and verse taken from Wennerström’s own records, about what a bad boy he’s been for at least the past 30 years. (He doesn’t explain that he couldn’t fight the libel case because it was based on forgeries Wennerström’s people dropped into his lap to throw him off the genuine case his old school-friend told him about at the beginning of the novel. Try to keep up.) He publishes it all in two forms: a 40-odd page exclusive in the magazine, and a 500-odd page book. After initial suspicion – this man’s got form, and not in a good way – the media go mad and Blom is soon the flavour of the month. He even gets his face on the front of Newsweek following his well-placed remarks about the way speculators are to blame for the run on the Swedish Stock Exchange, not our hardworking captains of industry and their trusty workers. Ah, bless. Wennerström scarpers, who knows where, and Blomkvist isn’t so much exonerated as beatified.

That’s enough of that. Next we’re with Elsbeth, and things become even more ridiculous. She has nothing against Wennerström, but this nice man who’s been nice to her doesn’t like him, so she thinks she’ll do what she can to make his life difficult. Or, eventually, non-existent. Her cunning plan is, well, let’s just say that it’s useful that this dysfunctional, undereducated woman is able to act as every single member of the Mission Impossible team at once, with a mastery of foreign languages and accents, the ability to find her way around, and memorise – using her super-photographic-woman powers – the 16-digit passwords and encryption codes of top banks, the ability to give herself the look and bearing of a rich heiress of any nationality… etc. She transfers all the money from Wennerström’s only known private account into various new ones she creates. And then she goes home.

Later, using her super-electronic-tracking-woman powers, she’s able to pinpoint exactly where Wennerström is in hiding. She also knows he’s more or less broke because, well, we know why – so when she sends a message to the mafia (or whatever) heavy looking for him, she isn’t a bit surprised to hear of the nasty fraudster’s death a day or two later. The end.

Nope. There’s yet another coda. (It feels like the fourth or fifth.) Elsbeth has come to realise that, yes, what she feels for the nice man is – well, as I said some time back, we know what it is. She decides she’s going to get her life together and, in that way she’s developed, she decides to morph into a different version of herself. She tidies up her flat – just count the bin-liners of rubbish! – and decides, because that’s what she’s seen people doing, to buy the nice man a present. But – D’oh – she sees him with that high-class editor woman, reads the body-language that has suddenly, somehow, ceased to be a closed book to her, and chucks the present into a skip. Some…times it’s hard…. To be… A..sper.. ger’s….


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