Tour’s Books Blog

September 19, 2009

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Filed under: Book review,Mystery review — toursbooks @ 1:04 am
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  • Title: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • Author: Stieg Larsson
  • Type: Mystery
  • Genre: Journalist sleuth
  • Sub-genre: Swedish thriller
  • My Grade: B- (3.8*)
  • Rating: NC-17
  • Where Available: Everywhere books are sold

One of the most praised books to come out in a long time, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was written by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson and translated by Reg Keeland.  For me, the book was enthralling and tedious at the same time.  A strange combination of compelling story and colorless, plodding prose that nearly had me screaming at the late author to move the story along.  The plot inventively weaves Sweden’s economic issues, political issues and relations within Europe with a family history, mutiple murders and about 4 significant sub-plots.  Unfortunately, it comes with a frequently plodding style that is as absent of verve as an art house film.   That’s an issue throughout the book.  At page 100, 20%+ of the way through the book, I was still waiting for the action to start.

The story unfolds in as Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has made a career exposing business corruption, gets convicted of slander of a prominent Swedish business man throwing his life into a personal and professional crisis.  A parallel story involved the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander, a Goth punk  investigator for a well established security business, does an in depth background check on him for a lawyer for the Vanger family.  It is she who suggests he was in some way setup to become a victim of his on exposé.  This setup and the initial meeting between Mikeal and Henrik Vanger takes about the first 100 pages.

Vanger, an 82 year old Swedish industrialist, is the man behind the deep background check on Blomkvist.  He has his lawyer speak with him and convince him to come to his home in the north during the Christmas holidays to discuss a ‘job’ he has for him.  Once there, Vanger tells him about their own family links through his father, a machinist that worked for Vanger.  Bomkvist remains aloof and disinterested, until the story goes into the story of the missing teenage Harriet Vanger.  Unwillingly, he is drawn into Vanger’s tale – one told in excruciating detail.  All Vanger asks is that Blomkvist write a family history, even if there is just one copy in the Vanger family, and find out what happened to Harriet Vanger that terrible night so many years ago.  He offers access to all the family source material.  Even more important is the staggering amount of money he’s willing to pay Blomkvist – and an opportunity to get revenge on Wennerström, the corrupt industrialist who won the libel suit.  An irresistible opportunity.

The story of Lisbeth Salander stays separate from Blomkvist, other than her initial background research, to page 262, over half way through the book.  It is through Lisbeth and the individual chapter headings that the emerging theme of sexual violence against women plays out.  Sweden’s peculiar laws on Guardianship of functioning adults come into play when Lisbeth becomes the victim of a violent sexual abuser who is her newly appointed Advokat.  Her own lack of emotional response as well as physical pain never quite come thru.  It’s here that I first realized why this book wasn’t fully engaging me – it’s too emotionally distant.  More than that, it’s coolly analytical, to the point of dryness.  That distance is more than Lisbeth’s mental problem with emotional disassociation, it’s the author’s style.  Bloodless calm.  It takes away a great deal of the authenticity of the whole story.

Lisbeth does what she has always done and deals with her attacker in her own way.  But she now has another problem, Blomkvist is at her door in her apartment asking a lot of questions.  He obviously knows she’s hacked his computer, but once he makes it clear he’s not there to threaten her or blackmail her, she’s willing to listen – and admit she’s drawn to the man.  The break that Blomkvist makes requires her skills to make make it bear fruit.  He’s faced with another problem.  Henrik Vanger had a massive heart attack and Cecilia, a niece with whom Blomkvist had a relationship while staying on the island, now adamantly opposes any more investigation by him into what happened to Harriet.  But Blomkvist owes Vanger now, the man helped save his magazine, so the debt is a personal one that goes beyond his contractual obligation.  He finally found something new, and like any good newsman, he doesn’t want to let go, no matter what.

The last third of the book really starts moving the story along as various plot elements regarding Harriet and the trail of what appears to be a serial killer begin coming together.  Lisbeth is now living in the cottage with Blomkvist and she initiates an affair with him.   The whole Wennerström project had been on hold for 6 months and the promised payoff was smoke and mirrors.  But the key to the whole thing is already there and the last 100 pages move at lightening pace as Blomkvist pulls together the second plot in the book.

Mr Larsson was a journalist in Sweden and he gives a unique take on European politics that American author could never match.  He also provides a unique insight into the the mindset of a Swedish adult with regard to sex, violence and child rearing.  The reader is left feeling that he imbued his Blomkvist character with many of his own beliefs and characteristics.  His personal political views tend to leak thru.  I suspect that’s why the dialogue so often reads like a lecture or speech, especially in the first half of the book which is more stilted than the second. The horror that should accompany various repugnant sexual perversions and grisly murders is so muted it’s almost abstract.  It should have been gruesome and stomach churning, instead it was just mildly disturbing.   That makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a rather tedious book.  At times the sentence structure was beyond awkward, perhaps the fault of the translator.   I can’t blame the translator for the colorless prose.  The plot was original, but it kept getting bogged down in those lectures and banal dialogue.  I normally associate journalists turned authors (John Sanford, Carl Hiaasen, Stephen Hunter, even Mike Lupica) with very crisp, spare prose, incisive wit, and a fast paced story, but all are notably lacking here.

The trope of a shrewd, inherently honest man who is used to unravel a Machiavellian plot while he plays a second role that only much later becomes apparent, is not a new one.  The real original here is Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo.  Maybe it’s a good thing her character has an emotional attachment problem, because Larsson’s writing isn’t up to handling anything else and he does an admirable job portraying this brilliant misfit.  Even the intricate, convoluted plot cannot completely compensate for the stark, emotionless tone. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is by turns oddly compelling and stultifyingly dull and devoid of emotional depth.  The last third of the book is so different from the first two-thirds that it’s almost like a different, and much better, book.  Overall. I can appreciate The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on an intellectual level, but I’ll never consider it a great read or a great mystery.  It was good enough that I will likely read his next two books as well.

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