Thursday, December 2, 2010
Book Review - Bestsellers - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
It took me a long time to read Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It sounded interesting, and I’ve already read some Nordic crime authors, but when it came to Larsson, I was always put off by the character of Lisbeth Salander. Anyone who can be described as “punk” or “Goth” usually loses my vote, fair or not fair. However, after watching the Swedish film adaptation of the book, I found I liked many aspects of Lisbeth, certainly enough to override my dislike of those aspects of her that could be described as “punk.”
Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” with the dragon tattoo, is a twenty-four-year-old computer hacker doing deep background investigations for Dragan Armansky, CEO and COO of Milton Security. Lisbeth not only has multiple tattoos, she has multiple piercings as well. She rides a motorcycle, has an affinity for black leather, has her hair chopped short and can kick some serious butt. We sense her background is one of abuse and violence, and even though she’s an adult, she has a state appointed guardian due to mental illness. But, while Lisbeth exacts revenge against the bullies and predators she encounters in her native Sweden, she has a good heart when it comes to the innocent.
Despite her overwhelming presence in the book, Lisbeth isn’t the novel’s protagonist. That honor goes to Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist who runs “Millennium,” an independent, left wing magazine with his “sometime” lover and journalism colleague, Erika Berger. When the book opens, Blomkvist has just been convicted for libeling financier, Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist faces a hefty fine and three months in jail, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his legal fees and keep the magazine afloat.
Enter semi-retired, octogenarian industrialist, Henrik Vanger, head of a family owned corporate empire. Vanger, who lives on a remote island north of Stockholm called Hedested (this island is fiction, by the way), makes Blomkvist an offer too good to refuse. Nearly forty years ago, Vanger’s adored sixteen-year-old grandniece, Harriet, disappeared on September 24, 1966. Vanger is convinced that she’s dead and that her killer is taunting him by sending him lovely framed pressed flowers on every birthday, a gift Harriet always gave her uncle. Under the cover of writing a family history, Vanger wants Blomkvist to spend a year on the island investigating Harriet’s disappearance. In return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist 2.4 million kroner (approx. $372,000, which might not pay legal bills in the US) and also give him some very damaging information about Wennerström, who just happened to get his start in business with Vanger’s company. Considering his circumstances, how could Blomkvist refuse?
Vanger is convinced someone in his own family, all of whom live on Hedested, murdered poor Harriet. Suffice to say, the Vangers are not a close-knit family. As Henrik puts it, “I detest most of the members of my family. They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies and incompetents.” As we read on, we learn that Henrik has been charitable in his description.
So, the stage is set. The only problem is that it takes Larsson many, many pages to reach this point, and those pages really aren’t all that compelling. They deal, in large part, with the intricate details of how a Swedish company is using government funding to set up fake businesses in Russia. The reader, however, just wants Larsson to hurry and get to the inevitable point where Blomkvist and Salander join forces (you know they’re going to) because it’s Blomkvist and Salander and their collaboration that elevate this novel a notch or two above your run-of-the-mill mystery/suspense thriller. Once the two do join forces, the pace picks up considerably.
Like Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist is a compelling character, though in a totally different way. Blomkvist is in his mid-forties, and there’s not a thing about him that could be described as “punk” or “Goth.” Still, he’s as conflicted, complicated, complex, and idiosyncratic as Lisbeth. And he bears more than a little resemblance to Larsson.
As Blomkvist and Salander attempt to solve the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance, they come across as very credible and sympathetic characters. In fact, the bond they form, though incongruous, is also quite believable. Blomkvist and Salander and their partnership are the strongest parts of this novel.
Also strong is Larsson’s ability to create mood and paint a very dark portrait of Hedested and Stockholm, itself, one that harkens back to the wonderful noir detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s. But to its credit, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn’t quite as dark as the novels of Larsson’s fellow Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell and the Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason, which are portraits of unrelieved bleakness. Though dark, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does contain much irony and flashes of dark wit along with some scenes so ugly they’re guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
There were many things about this book I loved and there were things I didn’t like at all. The novel is divided into four parts, and I have to say, I found the first part less than compelling. For me, Larsson used the first and last parts of his book as a platform to criticize conservative right wing Swedish politics, sexual violence against both women and men, and the corporate malfeasance that threatens Sweden’s economy. It’s not that these things don’t deserve criticism; they certainly do, but I would have rather read a nonfiction book devoted to that criticism than have it inserted in a book of fiction. For example, in Part I of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson tells us “eighteen percent of the women of Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” I believe it. I don’t condone it. In fact, I would wager that in the US, that number might be higher. It’s a subject that deserves attention. I would just rather have not read about statistics in this book, and in fact, the cultural critique of Sweden will probably be lost on readers in non-Scandinavian countries. Sentences that read, “She took the tunnelbana from Zinkensdamm to Ostermalmstorg and walked down towards Standvagen,” might as well be written entirely in Swedish. Or Swahili.
The middle sections of this book, however, are a real treat, and those are the sections in which Blomkvist and Salander are investigating the supposed murder. Those sections represent a wonderful character study of both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, though there are other characters in the book, and other relationships, that are less than satisfying, e.g., Erika Berger and Dragan Armansky and most especially, the two persons responsible for the disappearance of Harriet Vanger. As villains, they just weren’t believable at all.
In the end, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes too long to get going and then, despite the unbelievable villains and a still satisfying conclusion to the mystery of Harriet Vanger, the book, without any warning at all, focuses on Blomkvist’s implausible and for me, at least, boring efforts to discredit the financier who won the libel suit against him (Blomkvist) in the book’s opening. All in all, it felt like Blomkvist simply lost control of his narrative. And, he might not have been trying to control it at all. Blomkvist worked on his books at home in the evening and he enjoyed writing them so much that he was halfway through the third before he even considered finding a publisher.
Even with my complaints about the first and last sections, I didn’t have a problem finishing the book. It still held my interest. Maybe it was Blomkvist and Salander and the chemistry between them, but there’s something about this book that’s compelling, that won’t let a reader give up despite its faults and general messiness. Larsson was a good storyteller and he’ll be missed.
I really don’t know anyone who’s going to find this book perfect, though your complaints about it may be very different from mine. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a book with some very high points and some very low points. It’s certainly worth a read – if you like mysteries and thrillers. Even if you don’t, it’s interesting to see firsthand what all the fuss is about.
Recommended: To those who like mysteries and thrillers. Others may want to read the book simply because it is a bona fide literary phenomenon. I would have given the book four stars or maybe even four and one-half had the social commentary been edited out or at least toned down and the villains made more credible.