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Onyx reviews: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The "locked room" mystery is a tried and true sub-genre of the whodunit. John Dickinson Carr was famous for his novels that featured crimes that took place under seemingly impossible circumstances. In the general case, the perpetrator's method of access to and egress from the crime scene is as much a mystery as his identity.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a "locked island" mystery. It follows the same framework, but the crime takes place—if indeed there was a crime—on an island shut off from the mainland. The most famous instance of this scenario is Agatha Christie's classic novel And Then There Were None, where all ten people on a remote island are murdered one by one until there's no one left to blame for the killings.

There are plenty of potential suspects in the case of the disappearance of young Harriet Vanger, in the late Stieg Larsson's debut novel. Harriet vanished from Hedeby, the family's private island on the remote Norrland coast of Sweden on an afternoon when the only bridge on and off the island was blocked after a tanker transport collided with a car. The cast of suspects includes—and is limited to—anyone who was trapped on the island during the hours it took for the wreckage to be cleared. Because of the stir the accident caused, numerous photographs were taken that day, chronicling who was on Hedeby at the time. However, Harriet's disappearance took place forty years ago, complicating the investigation for anyone who should happen to turn his or her eye to the case. The police in charge at the time of her disappearance exhausted all of the available leads without discovering anything. No body—despite extensive searches of the island in the days after she was last seen—no obvious crime scene, no witnesses and no motive.

The person who is called upon to take one last stab at solving the decades-old crime is Mikael Blomkvist, co-publisher and co-owner of Millennium, an independent investigative financial magazine. Mikael finds himself with free time on his hands after he is convicted for committing libel in an article he wrote for Millennium about alleged corporate fraud perpetrated by a wealthy financier. To keep his magazine from being destroyed by the fallout, he takes a leave of absence from his editorial position while trying to figure out who supplied him with the false information about Hans-Erik Wennerstrom that lead to his conviction, and why he was set up.

Though he will eventually have to spend several weeks in prison, he is at liberty when approached by a lawyer representing Henrik Vanger, Harriet's great uncle. Vanger has been receiving a flower each year on his birthday, a tradition Harriet started before she vanished at the age of sixteen. This tells Vanger that the person responsible for her disappearance is still alive, which narrows the field of suspects considerably. The Vanger family business and Wennerstrom's are rivals, so Mikael is intrigued by Vanger's offer. He is to spend the next year living on Hedeby Island. His cover story is that he is writing Vanger's biography, but his real goal is to discover the truth, once and for all. If he succeeds, he will be rewarded financially, but more importantly Vanger promises to provide incontrovertible evidence against Wennerstrom that will help Mikael recover from his disgrace. Vanger also promises to help support Millennium through its difficulties by encouraging advertisers to pick up the slack created by companies who withdrew after Mikael's conviction.

No one truly expects Mikael to succeed—not the police, not Mikael, and not Vanger—but it is Vanger's last hope of putting the mystery to rest before he dies. He is convinced someone in his family murdered her.

Mikael moves into an unused guest house on the island, girds himself against the cold winter, and contents himself that at least he will have something to do while awaiting his prison sentence and also while letting the heat die down so he can return to Millennium.

The Vanger clan is colorful and contentious. Some of the family members, even though they live in close proximity to each other and share control over the business, haven't spoken to each other in decades. Some are supportive of Mikael's endeavors, others are openly hostile. Though none are informed of his true goal, most are familiar enough with Henrik's obsession over his grand-niece that they suspect that the biography is simply a cover.

Mikael digs through Henrik's comprehensive archive about Harriet's disappearance, pores over scores of photographs taken around and off the island on the day in question, conducts interviews with surviving family members, and spends the rest of the time reading English and American crime novels and going for walks into the village.

From time to time he is visited by Erika Berger, his partner at Millennium and occasional lover. Theirs is a unique relationship. Erika is married, and her husband is aware of her affair with Mikael. Both men tolerate the fact that they have to share her with someone else. Erika feels betrayed by Mikael's decision to move to the remote island and leave her to deal with Millennium on her own. They go from periods of tempestuous passion to not speaking to each other for weeks at a time.

Against all odds, Mikael starts to turn up new information about the day of Harriet's disappearance, both from the existing record and from his interviews. Based on an idle observation made by his visiting sister, he unlocks the mysterious code that has baffled authorities for decades, which leads him to discover a link between Harriet's disappearance and a series of previously unconnected murders committed in nearby communities over a span of many years. When someone breaks into his house and searches his papers, he knows that his investigation is starting to worry someone.

The eponymous tattooed girl appears in the early stages of the book on a seemingly unrelated plot trajectory. She is Lisbeth Salander, a scrawny young computer hacker with a punk appearance and a long history of antisocial behavior that has left her as a ward of the state under the governance of men who take advantage of her situation. The skills she developed that allow her to endure the abuse she has suffered throughout her life leave her cold, distant and fundamentally suspicious of men's motives. She has no authority over her own finances and is considered unstable and unpredictable.

However, she is highly adept at penetrating computer systems without being detected, and works as an operative and consultant for a large security firm. Her first connection to Mikael occurs when she is assigned to investigate his background before Vanger hires him to look into the disappearance. Ultimately, she becomes Mikael's ally and colleague in the investigation. Their relationship is awkward and turbulent, because they are both closed off in their own unique ways. Mikael is the first man Salander has ever known who doesn't seem to have ulterior motives regarding her. Both possess the ability to focus on a problem to the exclusion of everything else in their lives and follow every lead until it produces information or proves false.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of three books that feature Mikael Blomkvist, known collectively as The Millennium Trilogy even through they are standalone novels. They were published in Sweden shortly after journalist Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004 and are just now being released in translation. The book's title in Swedish translates to Men Who Hate Women.

Mikael can be seen as a stand-in for Larsson, who edited a magazine devoted to fighting racism and fascism. The latter enters into the story when Mikael discovers that some members of the Vanger family were members of the Nazi party during the war, and the misogyny implied by the original title is a crucial part of another part of the Vanger's covert history. Some of the things Mikael and Lisbeth uncover threaten the family's reputation in ways no one could have anticipated.

The book is a breath of fresh air—a mystery not only set in a foreign land, but written by someone who is part of that culture. Outside of ABBA, Sweden's impact on foreign culture might be summed up by Pippi Longstockings, Astrid Lindgren's famous fictional creation. Lisbeth is compared to Pippi on several occasions—the ungainly, unglamorous, precocious girl who is forced to live an adult life long before she is prepared to do so who succeeds because of her craftiness. Mikael has a different connection to Sweden's most best-known author. He acquires the nickname "Kalle Blomkvist"—the name of a boy detective in Lindgren's novels—after he becomes famous for solving a famous robbery as a young reporter.

Larsson's novel exposes readers to Swedish history, culture and society at the same time as he constructs a clever, compelling mystery and a number of instantly memorable characters. Mikael is something of an enigma, a dogged straight arrow with a decidedly unconventional lifestyle, but Lisbeth Salander is worth the price of admission alone, as she alternates between victimization and strength, rebellion and cooperation. Though the book is hefty, it is a fast and enjoyable read that will leave most readers anxious for the other two books from an author who died too young and whose literary legacy will be limited to a trilogy he didn't live to see published even in his native land.

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