The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, first American edition
First U.S. edition, 2008

The Millennium Trilogy / The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Novel originally called Män som hatar kvinnor (literally Man Who Hate Women
Stieg Larsson
Novels, 2005—2007
approx. 165,500 words (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
Novels in trilogy

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2005

The Girl Who Played With Fire, 2006

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, 2007

Notable lines
First lines

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell....

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Great lines

"Isn't it fascinating that Nazis always manage to adopt the word freedom?"

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

She had been sharing a house with him for a week, and he had not once flirted with her. He had worked with her, asked her opinion, slapped her on the knuckles figuratively speaking when she was on the wrong track, and acknowledged that she was right when she corrected him. Dammit, he had treated her like a human being.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

When other people are grieving, the newspaperman turns efficient.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Last line

She tossed Elvis into a dumpster.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Millennium Trilogy / The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

COMMENTARY

Noir in black and white

Nordic noir had been around a while before the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels made it a worldwide fad. For at least a decade earlier, great Scandinavian crime writers, like Henning Mankell, had been winning acclaim for their gruesome mysteries investigated by flawed human beings tangling with society's darkest forces.

Those works though were still essentially police procedurals. Stieg Larsson's novels making up what became known as The Millennium Trilogy were bleaker than anything that had come before. And they raised the social critique aspects of their stories to a level higher than in previous Scandinavian crime fiction and the original American noir.

The books were a callback to the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s in other ways too. Stripped down, just-the-facts writing. Minimal internal musing. Telling the story through blunt conversation in a series of sharp scenes. Flashes of action—swift and brutal.

But Larsson's prose—at least in the English translations—is pedestrian, missing the poetic flourishes and cynical humour of American masters of the style like Raymond Chandler and colleagues.

He jumps around his characters' perspectives in open bestseller fashion rather than staying constrained within any one main character's restricted point of view.

And, of course, his stories are more wincingly vicious. Part of this is simply a reflection of our times. All entertainment is more violent than it was decades ago.

But it also has to do, perhaps paradoxically, with one of his great themes being the treatment of women and the prejudice against those who are different. The title of the first novel in the trilogy was originally, in Swedish, to be literally Men Who Hate Women, which pretty well gives away Larsson's intentions.

As horrible as it is to follow the attacks on the brutalized, possibly autistic Lisbeth Salander, it is exhilarating to watch her harness her intelligence to exact equally graphic revenge.

In fact, the first Millennium novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, suffers a letdown after Salander avenges one of the wrongs against her by one of the women-hating men. After this triumph, we're left with the working out of the novel's main mystery by the book's central character Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced left wing journalist. It's a decent, clever—even intriguing—mystery, also entangled with exploitation of women.

Climaxes and cliffhangers

The search for what happened to a young girl who disappeared thirty years ago from a Swedish island ruled by her rich family would have made an acceptable entry in the work of any other of the good and popular crime writers of the day.

But it's the character of the strange little female hacker with the tattoos and punk-style clothing that galvanizes the novel. And, by coming back into the story to ally with Blomkvist, she raises it to another level. Then she practically takes over the second and third novels in the series. No wonder the English-language publishers wanted to change the Swedish titles to focus on "the girl" (who is actually in her twenties).

The first novel builds to multiple peaks, including Salander's revenge, the solving of the main mystery, plus Blomkvist's revenge (again with Salander's help) against the crooked capitalist who had ruined his reputation, and several other crises along the way. In this respect, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is structured more like a serial that one overarching story. Larsson is fond of sections ending on breathless revelations to push readers into the next set of adventures.

And this continues into the next two novels. All three actually tell one long, complex narrative of intertwined conspiracies, with several shorter story arcs grouped into each of the three novels, though the first novel could stand on its own as the most complete tale in itself.

The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, may be many readers' most compulsive read—until they get to the third one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Larsson may not be a great turner of phrases (it's hard to pick out strikingly quotable lines from the books), but the organization of his writing does drive his story forward powerfully.

Both the latter two novels, though, do slow down at various points with long pages of exposition outlining parallel police investigations and a national security subplot involving a Russian defector linked to Salander, before reverting back to the intense dramas of Mikael and Lisbeth. The last entry in the trilogy is particularly excruciating in its slow march to the inevitable resolutions in our heroes' favour.

In the final analysis, this exemplar of modern Nordic noir is as moralistic as its Scandinavian and Nordic forerunners. But it's the morality of the struggle between established social norms and more personal codes of what's right and wrong. As in any great hardboiled crime story, the figures defending society are willing to break the law and bend the usual ethical rules to achieve a greater good, almost as much as the forces of darkness are willing to do the same for their own enrichment.

Future Lisbeth

Stieg Larsson died before his three novels were published and various movie or television adaptations were made. The trilogy has been extended in a popular series—to lesser effect and acclaim—by another author. But whether the girl with the dragon tattoo will live on in the public imagination very far into the future is a question hard to answer.

High-brow critics can dismiss the novels as overly sensational, and thin on the literary features of nuanced characterizations, allusive language and introspective themes.

But the works have struck a chord with the tenor of our times in the early 2000s and who's to know whether they will continue to reverberate in the tumultuous times to come?

— Eric

COMMENTARY