There's just something about really good books that makes you want to share them with everyone else - this is definitely one of the best I've read all year, and this year I read Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker and WIlliam Golding. Dragon Tattoo was the one that I absolutely couldn't put down.
For those of you who don't know, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the first in the Millenium trilogy) begins with a semi-failed financial journalist being placed in an Agatha Christie-styled mystery. From the one-sentence summary, the book could devolve into just another factory-made novel, but doesn't because Larsson throws so many other things into the mix that we sometimes forget that the book is about a missing girl.
Making the main character (Mikael Blomvkist) a financial journalist was Larsson's first major deviation from the formula, and allows him to ground his character in a very different reality from that of the common thriller - we've heard enough about the detectives who always seem to have the same modus operandi, and we've become bored by the everymen who stumble on improbable government conspiracies in every other thriller.
Not every thriller has to be about an amnesiac assassin, and not everything is the fault of powerful people in American or Russian governments. Blomvkist, being the only main character in a thriller who has other things to worry about besides the main plot, doesn't even believe that there is a murder for a while. Instead, he desperately wants a crack at one of Sweden's stockbrokers, a wholly different beast, more elusive and much harder to kill. No matter what the reader thinks of the topic, we feel Larsson's clear disgust at an economy where bankers can lose millions to currency speculation and get away with it.
Henrik Vanger drags Blomvkist into the situation by hiring him to solve the decades-old mystery. Vanger is the former owner of the Vanger corporation, a company that actually produces goods rather than trading stocks. He is a man of industry, represents Sweden's declining manufacturing power, old but still wielding considerable financial and political clout. Through him, Larsson reminds us that there is a distinction between the share market and a true economy based on production.
But Blomvkist and Vanger both take a backseat to Lisbeth Salander, for whom the book is named. She dresses like a punk, acts like she is socially unaware and has no friends, but is capable of digging up the deepest, darkest secrets of anyone with a social security number. She is initially hired to do a background check on Blomvkist, and gets more involved in the mystery for her own reasons. Salander is an enigma, including, we suspect, to Larsson when he first began writing. We understand that something terrible has happened to her, but don't know exactly what (until the next book); we know that she operates on her own set of principles, but can't be sure what drives her to create them in the first place. And because she is such a unique person, we find ourselves waiting to see how she behaves, just so that we can divine more about her mind.
The book has so many extras that it almost defies the Law of Necessary Characters. Notables include Erika Berger, Blomvkist's lover and partner; Nils Bjurman, Salander's guardian; Harriet Vanger, the girl whos dissappearance still influences Henrik Vanger; her brother Martin who has grown to take over the Vanger corporation, and Dragan Armansky, Salander's boss. All of them add their own colour to the picture, and serve to make the book so much more than just another thriller.
Larsson writes so that the plot becomes a tool to allow for character development, which is so far another unique aspect of the book. Part of the way in, I found myself thinking more about why the characters behaved the way they did, than about how they solve the mystery. A clue comes in the book's original Swedish name - Män som hatar kvinnor. Its English translation is Men Who Hate Women.