I had been hearing about Stieg Larsson’s now world-famous Millennium trilogy for a couple of years, but I didn’t read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, until I saw the trailer for the English-language film adaptation coming out in December. I was slightly nervous to start the novel after hearing how great this series was: could it live to the hype?

The answer, at least for this first book, was yes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with Swedish journalist Mikael Blomqvist being convicted of libel against billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström. Disgraced and left near financial ruin after paying damages and court costs, Blomqvist soon finds himself living on a remote island and completing a freelance assignment for Henrik Vanger, the elderly former CEO of his family’s Vanger Corporation. For nearly forty years, Henrik Vanger has been haunted by the disappearance of his favorite niece, Harriet. He is convinced that someone in the competitive, corrupt Vanger family murdered Harriet and has been trying to drive him insane ever since. The mystery seems impossible to solve, especially after so many years, but Henrik charges Blomkvist with one final effort to find out who killed Harriet.

Because of the considerable research the assignment requires, Blomkvist takes on Lisbeth Salander, a surveillance agent from Milton Security, to help him solve Harriet’s murder. Salander is a brilliant investigator, able to find out anything about anyone, albeit through less than scrupulous means. She is pierced, tattooed, antisocial, and seemingly mentally unstable. But despite her unconventional appearance and unsettling presence, she proves to be exactly the person Blomkvist needs by his side as his investigation into Harriet Vanger’s fate uncovers more corruption and more brutal violence than he ever imagined.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. It is written with such detail and such intelligence that I felt not only interested in the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, but also involved in its investigation. The plot has several very clever twists; it’s been a long time since any book succeeded in surprising me as much as this one did. The book does become gruesomely violent at points, but the violence never feels gratuitous. Larsson clearly wanted to make a point in this novel about the horrors of sexual violence and make his audience take the issue seriously. As a result, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turns out to be both a good thriller and a brutally honest social commentary. Somehow, one never really interferes with the other; Larsson does an excellent job of weaving the two together into a strong, cohesive story.

For me, though, what truly sets this thriller apart from most others is the character of Lisbeth Salander. As much as I enjoy mysteries and thrillers, I find it irritating that so many authors in these genres feel the need to make their female characters impossibly beautiful, sophisticated, and perfect. Salander, on the other hand, is riddled with imperfections and not someone most people would immediately find attractive. One could possibly say that Salander’s eccentricities and extreme antisocial behavior make her no more realistic than more “conventional” heroines, but I found her a strangely refreshing character. I appreciated seeing a woman in this genre that was far from perfect, but still had the toughness and the intelligence to get the job done, even without movie star looks and impeccable social skills.

My only criticism of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the subplot involving Blomkvist’s libel conviction and the fallout for his magazine, Millennium. While there were interesting aspects to the storyline and it needed to be resolved, I was disappointed to see how much it dominated the end of the book. It simply wasn’t as gripping as the main plot, and I felt a little too confident that I knew how it would end. Still, I understand that it was necessary to give some sort of conclusion to that subplot, and it detracted very little from my enjoyment of the book.

I am always willing to be the naysayer if I don’t like something that’s popular, but I’m very glad I didn’t have to take that role here. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really was the smart, unorthodox, surprising thriller I hoped it would be. I looked forward to seeing the film adaptation premiering in December and reading the other two books in the trilogy.