The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

>> Monday, March 29, 2010

TITLE: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
AUTHOR: Stieg Larsson

PAGES: 533

SETTING: Contemporary Sweden
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Millenium trilogy.

REASON FOR READING: It was selected for my book club.

"I want you to find out who in the family murdered Harriet, and who since then has spent almost forty years trying to drive me insane"

The Industrialist:

Henrik Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed murder.

The Journalist:

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers' past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law.
The book:

Mikael Blomqvist is an investigative journalist who's just lost a huge slander case and with it, his reputation. When he's approached by an old industrialist who wants him to investigate a 40-year-old case, Mikael isn't sure, but accepts the project. After all, he'll be paid as long as he tries, even if he doesn't solve the mystery of the disappearance of Henrik Venger's 16-year-old grand-niece, Harriet.

As Blomqvist immerses himself in the reams of evidence Henrik has collected over the years, we also follow the life of Lisbeth Salander, a young antisocial hacker who freelances for a security agency. And when the two of them come together, the mystery explodes and it looks like they just might get somewhere.

This was not an easy book to read. The level of violence, both sexual and otherwise, and both in the present and in the past, is shocking and disturbing. It's not a book for the sensitive reader. I cringed and felt sick to my stomach more than once. But I was also tremendously absorbed by the characters (well, one character more than others) and the mystery.

When the mystery got going and Blomqvist started actually getting interested in Harriet's disappearance, things became truly fascinating. It's a very intriguing setup, a classic locked-room mystery, only with an island playing the part of the room, and the characters involved are well done. And when Blomqvist starts making some breakthroughs, the pages flew by, even more when Salander got involved.

It was a bit disappointing, though, that when things started getting explained, there was a bit of a lack of coherence about what I thought was the most spectacular and interesting evidence, Harriet's list of names and numbers. When that was cracked, I thought it was brilliant, and moved the book to a whole new level, but then, when the truth came out, I just couldn't understand what was the point of it. Why had Harriet felt the need to write this down and in such cryptic fashion? Who didn't she want to understand the references? It makes no sense. And what that evidence showed was a bit iffy as well. There was not much analysis of it, just a glib assumption that oh, this person must have had some obsession with this and that. And that was it. Oh, well.

Salander is a wonderful character, like no other I've ever read. She's fiercely intelligent, but has some trouble functioning in society, which results in her being placed in a position that I found outrageous, if sadly believable. Anyone who reads this book will probably be haunted by a particularly shocking and horrific string of scenes involving her. I was, and I briefly contemplated dropping the book (good thing I had to finish it for the book club). But on reflection, horrible as they were, they really work in telling us more about Salander and who she is.

[spoiler]Although, I must say that I'm still having trouble reconciling the Salander who at the end of the book very sophisticatedly steals millions from one of the villains with the scared creature who is not at all aware of her rights and who feels she needs to approach a man who scares her (not to mention, has already raped her) for a miserly 10,000 kroner.[/spoiler] But I'll discuss my problems with the final sections later.

Each section starts with a shocking statistic about sexual violence about women in Sweden. It warns you even before you start, and for the first time that I remember these little quotes actually added to my reading. When I stopped in disbelief about the level of sexual violence the women in this book are subjected to, I thought of those statistics and realised it was believable, after all. When I wanted to shake the women for not going to the police, same thing.

So all that was excellently done, and I really could understand why the book has become such a big hit. However, there were some very significant weaknesses, things that made me wonder what on earth the author was thinking.

The worst one is the pacing. It's off, off, off. The problem is that slander case I mentioned. Blomqvist had got a tip about shady dealings by a big businessman called Wennerstrom. The sources seemed solid, but then he wrote his story and the sources disappeared. All very fishy. This serves to provide a reason for why Blomqvist agrees to Henrik's request, and it's in the background all book. That's all right, the problem is when it comes to the forefront, as it does at the beginning and the end.

Fortunately, I was warned by a friend that the book starts out a bit slow. Slow and tedious, I would add. Even with the warning, it was hard going. All detailed business dealings and industrial policy and how to play the system. Dead boring. And hey, I'm an economist, I've worked in industrial policy. If it bored me, I don't know how other people get past it. Once you do, though, the book flies.

But if the beginning is not particularly well-paced, the ending is a train-wreck. The pacing goes to hell when the book approaches its last part. This is one drawn out ending. The villain is discovered and the danger to our protagonists is over when the book still has, in my edition, about 130 pages to go. Then the rest of the mystery is resolved with 100 pages to go. The final 100 pages are devoted to tying up trivial loose ends, a lot of talking, and the resolution of the extremely boring Wennerstrom affair. It reads easily enough, to be fair, but I didn't care in the least. I suppose the bright side of this is that when the big, showy denouement started, I wasn't expecting it at all, since I knew there was still a lot of book to go.

The other thing that I didn't particularly like was the sex. There was a lot of sex in the book, but it was all either horrific and painful or perfunctory and cold. I've already discussed the horrific and painful bits, but there's also the fact that characters in this book fall into bed with each other at the drop of a hat, and with a strange lack of thought. To be fair, most of the sex itself probably wasn't perfunctory and cold (I'm sure the characters were enjoying themselves), but the way it was presented was. There's absolutely no thinking about it. It's hey, why not, whether or not there's any chemistry between the characters. And there isn't, in any of the cases that come to mind. Blomqvist's sex life feels very much as stereotypical male fantasy. Every single woman who sees him wants him, and he has no objection to doing them all (and "doing them" is a perfect description of his SOP with women).


The film:

(WARNING: some spoilers here, as I'm mostly discussing the differences between book and film)

Atypically for me, I really wanted to watch this (I'm never in too much of a hurry to see films based on booksI've enjoyed, and even less if I didn't enjoy them). But with TGWTDT, I thought the film could easily correct the pacing problems, which I thought were the book's main weakness. I also hoped it would tone down somewhat the horrendous sexual violence.

For the most part, I got what I hoped for. The pacing was much, much better. The film didn't deviate from the book's plot that much, but it did majorly gloss over the beginning and the last 130 pages, especially the boring, boring business bits.

The sexual violence did feel less disturbing, but I suppose that was just because I always find it more disturbing in general to read things rather than watch them (my mind is very effective at scaring me). However, the scene between Lisbeth and her guardian felt more gratuitous. In the book, disturbing as it was, it served to develop Lisbeth's character, showing how she functioned (or not) in society. We didn't get much of that in the book, and so the scene lost that purpose. It did still show her sense of justice, though, and how she was perfectly willing to take justice in her own hands, and not squeamish at all about it.

What was a surprise was how much more I liked the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael in the film. This is one area in which we move away from the book quite a bit. No more pathetic male fantasy sex life. Cecilia doesn't throw herself at Mikael here, his relationship with Erica is much toned down and there is a tenderness and vulnerability on his part in his relationship with Lisbeth that just wasn't there in the book at all. I liked it, and it made me like him more.



Lynn Spencer,  4 April 2010 at 02:25  

From what I've read online, the books in the series were not translated in order and the first two have not been translated at all.  However, I jumped right in with book three and had no problems at all.  The books in English so far are (in order):

The Redbreast
The Devil's Star
The Redeemer
The Snowman

I've read The Redbreast and Nemesis so far and I'm about 100 pages into The Devil's Star right now.  It took me a little while to get into Redbreast, but it and Nemesis were both very good.  The series centers on a hero who is deeply flawed and yet somewhat likable.  Some aspects of the books are very dark, so it's not the thing to pick up when you're in the mood for a laugh, but they're densely plotted and I really enjoy the writing.

rosario001,  4 April 2010 at 07:48  

Thanks, Lynn! My library has Redbreast, and I've ordered it. I'll make sure I'm in the right mood to read it!

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