The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a sprawling book –- a murder mystery, journalism thriller, and political polemic all rolled into one. An international bestseller, it was published posthumously –- in Sweden in 2005, and in the U.S. last fall –- after the early death of Larsson, a Swedish writer and activist who was editor-in-chief of the anti-racist magazine Expo.
The mystery begins with an 82-year-old man receiving, as he does every birthday, a pressed and mounted flower from an unknown sender. The flowers have come through the post for decades, and once again the man and a retired police detective are left with few clues to solve the troublesome case.
Next we meet Mikael Blomkvist, a veteran journalist who has just been convicted of libeling and defaming a Swedish financial giant named Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. In due time, Larsson introduces to us Dragan Armansky, the slightly skittish CEO of Milton Security, and reveals that the "birthday boy" is aging industrialist Henrik Vanger, the former head of the Vanger Corporation, a family-owned firm whose size and influence have been on the wane for years. With Blomkvist’s career stalled, Vanger manages to convince him to move to the family estate on Hedeby Island, three hours north of Stockholm. There, for the next year, the journalist will purportedly write a family history. But his real task is to find out who in the family murdered Vanger’s beloved teenage niece, Harriet, on a chaotic day some 36 years ago.
On a Saturday in September 1966, with a great number of the Vangers gathered together on the island, a car crashes head-on with an oil truck on the bridge connecting Hedeby to the mainland. Sometime in the midst of the commotion of that afternoon, as Henrik Vanger leads the rescue and response effort on the bridge, Harriet vanishes –- and has not been seen since. In the ensuing years Vanger became obsessed, pulling together every scrap of information about that day –- where Harriet was spotted at what times, how many people were on the island (64), how many boats were there (13). "In effect I’ve spent almost half my life collecting information about a single day," Vanger says. Now, as he senses death approaching, he wants to take one more stab at solving the disappearance, by having Blomkvist dig into it with fresh eyes. This "locked-room mystery in island format," as Blomkvist puts it, gives The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo its momentum.
But for all the intrigue of the above, it is that "girl" –- 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander –- who is the most interesting of Larsson’s universe of characters. A pale, thin young woman with many tattoos and a pierced nose and eyebrows, Salander fits into Milton Security’s conservative image "about as well as a buffalo at a boat show." Eminently difficult and socially distant, she turns out to be Armansky’s best investigator –- and he takes her under his wing and tries, unsuccessfully, to become her friend.
In time we learn that Salander has spent 12 years under the guardianship of the state, including two years institutionalized in a psychiatric children’s clinic. During what Larsson understatedly refers to as not "an easy journey," Salander runs through several foster families, gets arrested repeatedly, and always refuses to participate in psychiatric evaluations, not seeming to care what anyone thinks of her. Only eventually does "a reluctant sense of respect" develop between Salander and her kindly guardian, Holger Palmgren.
But when Palmgren dies, he is replaced by Nils Bjurman, a man who turns out to be even more dangerous than the wary Salander expects. He assaults her twice -– and Salander feels she has no one she can turn to, especially not the state that supposedly cares for her. Instead, she takes revenge, aided by a taser.
Those harrowing scenes are reinforced by the factoids Larsson inserts at the beginning of each part of his book –- "Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man," or "Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man" –- and by the shocking truth that Salander and Blomkvist discover as they together unravel Harriet’s disappearance. Larsson's message –- on behalf of abused and disappeared women across Sweden –- is unmistakable.
But the over-the-top plot leaves much to be desired, especially as the book drags on, long after the mystery has been solved. For more than 100 pages after Harriet Vanger’s fate is resolved, Larsson continues on with the journalism thriller storyline (as Blomkvist takes aim again at Wennerstrom), an awkward romance, and even wacky disguises. It turns out the world Larsson has created for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is just too big, and there is too much to wrap up –- with declining payoff –- as his novel wanders to its finish.