The Girl with Dragon Tattoo is first and foremost a murder mystery. The major premise is the attempt by Mikhael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander to determine in 2003, what happened to Harriet Vanger, a young girl who disappeared off the family island in 1966.
At its behest though is a very powerful undercurrent about woman, the violence they experience, the frequency of this violence, and the infrequency of its reporting. That is what this highly popular novel is about.
First there is Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s titular character. She is declared mentally incompetent at 12 and for the next 10-12 years of her life has a legal guardian. When this legal guardian has a heart attack, the new legal guardian she is assigned uses this position to gain sexual favours from Lisbeth. First it is oral, shocking enough, then he rapes and sodomises her. These scenes are written in great detail, conclusively building a morose and macabre picture that leaves a permanent mark on any reader’s mind. Arguably the book’s most iconic moment comes when Lisbeth gets her revenge on her guardian. First she tasers him, ties him up, shows him that she had filmed him raping her and exacts demands from him. To top it all off, she tattoos onto his abdomen ‘I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist’.
Of course this is not in anyway believable. The probability of any raped woman exacting revenge in this way is minute to non-existent. One could even claim that her actions were above and beyond the pale, yet you do not feel any sympathy for her guardian. Even in that moment with the Tattoo needle in her arm, the reader is encouraging her to do it, in awe of her veracity.
What is perhaps more believable, more powerful, is what is found up on Hedeby Island. The central premise of the novel as already mentioned is the investigation, originally by Mikhael Blomkvist, later joined by Lisbeth, into what happened to Harriet Vanger. They are commissioned by the family patriarch, 82 year old Henrik Vanger to find out if she was murdered, escaped or committed suicide. Vanger believes it was the former.
Without going into too much detail about the case, Mikhael finds a diary Harriett kept of Bible verse numbers next to the initials of women that had been violently raped and killed in the 40s-60s. Eventually they figure out that these murders had been committed by Harriett’s father, Gottfried, and then continued by her brother Martin, the current head of the Vanger Corporation. Unlike his father, Martin chooses to discard the bodies he captures, rapes and then murders, in the ocean off the island. All of them foreigners. Easy to capture and murder without too many people snooping around and asking questions. It is quite chilling to listen to Martin speak of his activities with such clarity and seeming logic.
He does deny killing Harriett though and we later find that Harriett had not in fact been killed but rather escaped. She had found out that her father had killed several women, even taking Martin along to the previous murder. He used a quasi-religious method to justify his actions. She had killed her father when he drunkenly attempted to rape her violently one night, only to find that her brother was now following in his father’s footsteps. So she escaped and ended up in Australia on some farm north of Alice Springs.
One of the questions the novel leaves open to interpretation is whether Martin can be blamed entirely for his ways, or whether his father who introduced him to these acts should bare responsibility. Mikhael thinks Gottfried is the ultimate villain; Lisbeth doesn’t and angrily argues that Martin is ultimately responsible for his own actions. It is fascinating. Nature versus Nurture. Would Martin have turned out as he did had his father not existed? Does it even matter?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a brilliant and sobering read. Depressing yet ultimately triumphant. Lisbeth and Harriet despite what they go through find redemption in their own way. Harriett returns and takes over the company. Lisbeth brings down Martin Vanger and goes around helping women and the families of those affected by sexual violence. These women do not allow themselves to be defined by the injustice that befell them; rather they rise above it.
The irony being of course, as Larsson reminds us at the beginning of the last section of the book, the authorities are not notified. The truth is far too inconvenient.
The outside world is never made aware of their past, and it is this point above all else, despite the improbability of several storylines, that is the most believable and powerful.