Monday, April 5, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- Stieg Larsson

(I'm writing this post with the page for the film version open -- I listened to it on audiobook and have no idea how to spell the Swedish names I was hearing!)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one of those books I always noticed whenever I stopped into a bookstore -- and because it was so ubiquitous, I decided it wasn't something I was interested in reading, maybe along the lines of the newest Chelsea Handler memoir or something by Nicholas Sparks. If everyone wanted to read it, I probably didn't. But when I received an mp3 player as a holiday gift and found it preloaded with this title, among others, I figured it'd be worth a (free) listen. According to a Stieg Larsson website, this is the first in what was originally intended to be a ten book series -- Larsson only finished 3 before his death (there is a partial 4th novel that is being considered for publication, though it will need to be finished by another writer).

As I've mentioned here before, Swedish detective stories have become all the rage lately -- and for good reason, I've discovered. They have a certain hardboiled quality to them that harkens back to the glory days of Raymond Chandler and the other noir writers of the early 20th century while at the same time possessing the characteristics you'd expect from the post-9/11 world, especially as perceived with a European eye.

The story here is actually the convergence of several different plotlines all at once: Mikael Blomkvist is a disgraced journalist awaiting a prison sentence for slandering the name of a well-known Swedish businessman; Lisbeth Salander is a ward of the state struggling to gain independence who also happens to be one of the most brilliant hackers the tech world has ever encountered; Henrik Vanger is an aging patriarch who wants to know the truth behind a family tragedy and long-harbored secret. The book is organized chronologically, so the reader finds himself bouncing back and forth between characters and events with little or no warning until the different stories start to link together later on within the novel. In fact, without the ability to flip back a few pages and make sure I didn't miss anything, I was pretty confused for the first few tracks of my audiobook until I realized that I hadn't accidentally skipped to a different novel altogether! This careful weaving of disparate plots is nothing new in the suspense genre -- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy begins much the same way, for example.

Once you get used to this format and are willing to let the author tease you for a while before you see how these stories will connect, the focus becomes the characters. While the original title of Larsson's novel translates to "Men Who Hate Women," the English version suggests that the tattoo-loving Lisbeth deserves our attention the most. (It's interesting to note that only one of the titles for the Swedish-language trilogy starts with "The Girl..." -- I'm curious how that might have affected my attitude towards the characters in the novel, had I read it in the original.) While Mikael probably gets the most "face time" in the novel and is perhaps the most well-defined of the characters, I found myself connecting most to Lisbeth. She is feisty, damaged, lonely, and brilliant -- and you can't help but cheer her on when she gives villains of all shapes and sizes their comeuppance.

An important comment, for those unfamiliar with these kinds of thrillers: this book is not for the fainthearted. Larsson introduces us to some very evil, disgusting people, and deals with them in often startling, usually violent ways. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes Sweden seem like a bleak, dark place -- but one where everyone gets their just deserts in the end, even if it takes decades to come about.

The mystery aspect to the story was a bit of a disappointment. The Vanger family tragedy is not unveiled to its full extent until several chapters into the novel, and the resolution to it is not one readers could puzzle through and solve on their own. I don't appreciate whodunits where you can predict the killer from page one -- but I am also frustrated when I'm not given the opportunity to at least flip back through the book and see where I could have solved it, had I been more observant. This novel definitely fell into the second category, so this would-be detective was a little disappointed.

The Vanger mystery is also solved several chapters before the end of the book, which seems to suggest that it is not the most important of the plotlines. But Lisbeth's plot is left unresolved -- paving the way for a sequel, certainly, but still unsettling, considering how important a role she played here. Mikael's slander story gets top billing, based on the "save the best for last" theory, but it is in many ways the least interesting of the plots here (even though I've said very little about it, I'm guessing that you can already guess how he feels about the charges against him and what he decides to do about it!). Since these books are referred to as "the Millennium trilogy," however, and Mikael's employer at the time of his criminal charges was a magazine called Millennium, the emphasis here is at least understandable, if a bit disappointing to those of us with our sympathies placed elsewhere. Long story short (and this certainly was a long one -- 480 pages or so): Larsson is perhaps overly ambitious here with too many stories happening and not enough time to resolve or develop any of them effectively.

National Public Radio just aired a story about the impatience of American Stieg Larsson fans who have had to wait much longer than the rest of the world to get their hands on a copy of the final book in the trilogy. It seems like I might review this book differently once I can see how it fits into the framework of the whole set -- but there's value, I think, in looking at the books in a series as separate entities, too. I plan to post another review once I've read the other two; for now, I like what I've seen, even though I found it a little disjointed, and I'm looking forward to starting the next book soon.

Final Verdict: ***


  1. Hi Courtney -
    Your mom called while I was reading this book for my book club. After mentioning the book title to you, apparently you reminded her of your literature blogspot where you reviewed it! Thanks to my daughter Laura, your brother Ross and the miracle of facebook, I was able to track your review down.
    I was frustated that more wasn't revealed about Lisbeth's mother. I had my own theory (involving Harriet) but that got eliminated after Australia. I agree that certain threads were left dangling in order to spur interest in the sequel.
    I also felt that the writing seemed rather simplictic but suspect that it was more nuanced in the original Swedish. I must say, your writing is lovely! When can my book club read your first novel?
    Tomorrow is Fiesta Day - I better look for my Mexican clothing!
    Ann Haines

  2. Good sleuthing on your part to find my blog! And I wanted to know more about the mother, too. Maybe the next book? I already own the audiobook, so I'll probably be listening to it over the summer and I will fill you in if you want details (based on what my mom said, I can't believe how fast you got the first book read!). Thanks for taking the time to leave me a comment :)