The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, By Stieg Larsson, trans Reg Keeland

Heavy metal and deep waters in a savage saga

If this novel leaves you with a thirst for others by Stieg Larsson, it will be largely unslaked: there are just two more books. Larsson's Millennium trilogy was delivered to a Swedish publisher shortly before the author died at 50 in 2004. Since his death, sales of this novel have exceeded a million in his native country. Larsson was also a crusading journalist, confronting far-right groups and defending the defenceless. Inevitably, he and his partner were threatened by extremists. But Larsson remained unintimidated, and fought for his beliefs up until his death from a massive heart attack.

So what is the secret of Larsson's astonishing posthumous success in Sweden? At the start of this weighty novel, Larsson appears to be testing his readers. He has up his sleeve two extremely engaging protagonists. Once these characters have appeared, our surrender to the novel is guaranteed. Before that, however, we are subjected to lengthy (and impenetrable) details of financial scams in which the reader (like the characters) seems to be being told – sharply – to pay attention. But just as our patience is being tested, Larsson allows us to luxuriate in some impeccable plotting.

The action involves disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. The former is cut from a familiar cloth: the tenacious reporter who has taken on a dangerous enemy (like Larsson himself), but Salander is that rara avis, something utterly new in crime fiction. Much esteemed by her financial investigator boss, Salander belies her professional expertise as investigator by an off-putting punk appearance: facial jewellery, outlandish clothes and the eponymous tattoo. One of her subjects is Blomqvist, sacked after a disastrous legal defeat.

Unaware of Salander's report on him, Blomqvist is hired by an ailing magnate to investigate the disappearance (and possible murder) of his niece on an island. The island was cut off from the mainland by an unlikely accident involving a blocked bridge, isolating a group of suspects. Before the reader can cry "Locked room scenario!", Larsson beats us to the punch, with his characters noting that this is classic English mystery territory. But not for the first time, we're being wrongfooted: what follows is much darker and bloodier – more Thomas Harris than Dorothy L Sayers.

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in Reg Keeland's elegant translation, is a bittersweet experience. We are constantly reminded that an accomplished literary voice has been stilled. For instance, just as we are worrying that Salander might alienate the very people she is plugging for information, Larsson has her remove her face metal and don conventional clothes: she has, in fact, a secret identity.

She is also, despite her insolent manner, vulnerable, tying in to a feminist undercurrent here ("18 per cent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man"). But if this suggests a vitiating PC quality, the unsparing horror the novel deals out banishes any such notions.

MacLehose Press £14.99 (532pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power