In 1981 Larsson went to work for the largest Swedish news agency, Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT). His political convictions, as well as his journalistic experiences, led him to found the Swedish Expo Foundation, similar to the British Searchlight Foundation, established to expose racist and totalitarian organisations and tendencies; he also became the editor of the foundation’s magazine Expo. Larsson quickly became instrumental in documenting and exposing Swedish extreme right and racist organisations; he was an influential debater, lecturer and leading expert on the subject, living for years in the shadow of death threats from his political enemies.
First, the story: The opening chapter had me worried, because it was heavy on issues of banking and economics in Sweden. My patience was rewarded though, because this is a great story. The primary characters are Mikael Blomkvist, a middle aged journalist (co-founder of a small magazine that exists to expose injustice and financial fraud glossed over by the traditional media), and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman with tattoos, a horrific family and personal background, some Aspergerish-symptoms, and a photographic memory. They are both interesting, but Salander (she is rarely referred to as Lisbeth) is one of those characters that sticks with you.
The story resolves around a thirty-year-old mystery. Henrik Vanger, an elderly former indulstrialist with lots of money and time, hires Mikael to find out once and for all who was responsible for the death of his brother’s daughter Harriet. Salander comes into this investigation through some backdoors, and finds that Mikael is one of the few people in the world who are neither intimidated nor infuriated by her. And so they set off to sort through what turns out to be a very complex story involving almost all of the viperous Vanger clan.
I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to thrillers and crime novels, but Larsson kept me interested. More than interested. It doesn’t happen very often that my mind keeps turning back to a book in progress, so that I find excuses to read for another hour. I did that with this story.
Another aspect to this novel that intrigued and surprised me was the social and political setting of modern Sweden. I should know better, but I’ve always romanticized the place. Not in terms of its looks; I could never live anywhere with a winter darker and bleaker than the one I’ve got already. But I have thought of Sweden as a kind of perfect place in terms of social justice. Most people hate the idea of living someplace with such high tax rates, but I would pay that much and more to know that everybody was fed and warm and had access to health care. So call me a socialist, I don’t consider it an insult.
What I never thought about (but should have) is that Sweden has its fair share of greedy bankers and unscrupulous industrialists and predatory authority figures. Even worse, I wasn’t aware that women are not treated well. To put it mildly. Every section options with a factoid about the lot of Swedish women, who are abused and assaulted at levels that shocked me. Violence against women, the failure of the media to do its job, the greed and corruption of big industry, and a narrow but persistent streak of racism, anti-semitism, of fascism and Nazi-worship.
All of these less-than-savory aspects of modern Swedish culture are relevant to this story, though that won’t seem obvious at first.
The novel is (of course) translated into English from the original Swedish, and there are some passages that border on the clumsy. Nevertheless, the story is well plotted and intriguing. If you like meaty mysteries in the style of Dennis Lehane, you’ll probably like this.