The bestselling Swedish novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo begins as an anti-thriller, devoid of the genre's usual chapter-to-chapter cliffhangers. The central legal case is stalled for so long that protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, spends half the novel complaining about the cold, reading other authors' detective stories, and having affairs. As the weather warms, the fool's errand to which he's devoted himself gradually turns perilous, and in the sure hands of Stieg Larsson, seemingly disjointed scenes of waiting take on terrifying import.
Blomkvist is facing the slow decline of the magazine he co-founded, plus three months in prison for libel, when he gets an intriguing offer from aging industrialist Henrik Vanger: Spend a year in Vanger's island hometown under the pretext of writing a biography of Vanger's family, while investigating the disappearance of a beloved great-niece whom he believes was murdered by a relative. The catch: She disappeared 40 years ago, on the same day that an unrelated accident blocked all through traffic. After a year of effort, Vanger will give Blomkvist the proof he needs to appeal his judgment and sink the businessman whose corruption he couldn't prove in court. As Blomkvist digs through piles of police testimony and pages of the missing girl's journal, he enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, an uncannily good hacker with a photographic memory and a rebellious past.
Larsson's leads are oddly attractive in their complete disinterest in being liked: Blomkvist is an anti-sleuth, immune to the allure of payment even when his former career hangs in the balance, but also to the protests of Henrik's relatives over the re-opening of the case. Lisbeth, too, prefers her chilly, compartmentalized assignments to a lasting career. Because they're so well-developed, their bizarre paths, studded with moments of absurd humor (at one point, an angry Vanger is described as looking like "an inflated moose") become believable down to their implications for the rest of Blomkvist's life. When the reporter and the hacker wind up in real peril, it only creates more loose ends in the case, but it doesn't feel like a stall. Larsson indulges in some grisly scenes, but makes it clear that the worst crimes have already taken place in the twisted memories of those involved. Larsson didn't live to see this first novel or its two follow-ups published, which only adds to the mystery.