I’m not sure what makes the perfect crime novel, but gripping writing, strong characters and deeper themes must be a mix that comes close. The first in Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl’ trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have all this.
The story is sophisticated and summarising it is tricky, but the essence is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the CEO of a large Swedish family business and head of the big Vanger family, to investigate a girl who went missing over thirty years ago. Lisbeth Salander is a strong but emotionally troubled investigator and hacker who ends up helping Mikael. In the process they get close, discover a host of horrific secrets within the Vanger family’s history and then uncover headline-making criminal business dealings from a rival business leader, Wennerstrom.
It’s an excellent plot, as much international thriller as crime fiction. And the main characters are very well drawn. Lisbeth, with her inner-determination but difficult life and social problems, is particularly interesting. The fact that it was translated from Swedish make it all the more remarkable.
But what elevates the book, I think, is what it says about abuse, journalism and business.
The most prominent theme of the novel is the abuse of women by men in positions of power. Heads of families abusing daughters, business leaders using their money and status to exploit vulnerable girls, carers abusing those they are caring for… It makes for grim reading, but this is at the heart of the book. The book’s chapters are peppered with facts about sexual abuse in Sweden. And most interesting is Lisbeth’s attitude towards abuse: she experiences abuse from men on a number of occasions, never blames herself, and always seeks revenge.
We see, as well, as very idealised view of investigative journalism, with Blomkvist and the magazine he works for, Millennium, struggling to make ends meet but battling on and stopping at nothing to uncover the truth behind Wennerstrom’s activities.
And Larsson draws a strong contrast, which he makes explicit toward the end of the novel, between the valuable role of businesses in the ‘real’ economy that make things and create jobs, and the rent extracting role of the stockmarket, which simply enriches a few at the expense of the many.
The vitriol against those abusing their power is present throughout the book, both through the rage of the main characters but also in the narrative as a whole. Sometimes this makes the novel seem a little simplistic: investigative journalism is useful but perhaps not as saintly as Larsson depicts it, and the distinction between the stockmarket and the real economy is far from so easy to draw.
But these are small gripes. This is a top quality book that gripped me and got me thinking.