I've been thinking for days about how to rate and review this book. If the first and last 100 pages were lopped off (basically eliminating the frame story about Wennerstrom), I think this would be a five-star thriller. But the fact is that I did have to slog through the first 100 pages or so before the central mystery about Harriet was introduced, and it wasn't until then that the book truly caught my attention. Even then, the plot moved slowly for another 100 pages. It wasn't until Lisbeth's glorious confrontation with Advocat Bjurman and then Mikael's realization that Harriet's phone numbers were actually clues to a series of decades-old murders that I reached that point where I couldn't put the book down and had to know what happened next, and how Lisbeth and Mikael's stories converged. But once they did, yowza!
There's a lot of brutality in this book, but also a lot of wish fulfillment. Lisbeth is brutalized by Advocat Bjurman, but gets a revenge that had me pumping my fist in the air and shouting, “Fuck yeah!” Harriet is brutalized by her father and brother, and is believed to have been murdered by them, but is found alive and finally reunites with the man who should have been her father. Mikael is metaphorically brutalized by Wennerstrom – framed for a libel conviction – but the truth outs in the end. He's also literally brutalized, and nearly killed, by Martin, who in turn dies in a firey car crash while being chased by Lisbeth. It's a strange contrast to have every story more or less work out in the end. While these characters are victims of violent acts, Larsson captures so realistically the sense of powerlessness that Lisbeth and Mikael experience (we only get Harriet in conjecture and retrospect), and the arrogant sense of power their abusers wield over them. But the revenge parts, the parts where justice is served as the tables are turned, seem much less realistic. So it's a book that couples the realities of violence, sadism and abuse – and the lifelong consequences for Lisbeth as her psychological damage forces her into a system that further strips her of dignity and control – with these revenge fantasies that allow the reader to shake off the brutality and say, “Whew! Everything worked out in the end.”
Which isn't to say the characters aren't left scarred. Mikael is literally scarred at the hands of Martin, but also metaphorically when he sacrifices his own sense of ethics and allows the true story about what happened to Harriet – and the women who were killed at the hands of Martin and Gottfried – to be buried by the Vanger family in order to protect Harriet from having her victimization exposed to the media. He'll bear the weight of that for a very long time.
But does it really protect Harriet to bury the story? Has justice been served because Martin died and the families of his victims will be paid off? I'm not so sure of these things, but being a journalist I have a similar belief system to Mikael's, so I'm naturally going to tend to side with him.
And then there's Lisbeth, who took her first tentative steps toward letting someone else into her life, only to have the bittersweet realization at the end that maybe she let Mikael a little too far into her heart. Will that realization send her back into her self-imposed isolation, or has their relationship started the very slow process of letting her heal? I guess I'll have to read the next book to find out.
But really, it seems to me this is a book about power. People who have it, people who take it from others, people who use it as a weapon, and people struggling to find their own again. Lisbeth takes hers back through violence. Mikael takes his through exposing the truth about Wennerstrom. I found that an interesting theme to wind through a mystery story.