The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Book Review)

imagesThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a series of three crime novels that Stieg Larsson completed before his death of a massive heart attack at age 50. It is a “phenomenon” novel and runaway best-seller in spite of some serious flaws: it starts with a prologue which does not involve the main characters; it ends with a summary that draws the novel well beyond the climax; after the prologue it moves slowly and describes the outcome of a trial; its dialogue is often wooden and serves as the author’s mouthpiece; its point of view sometimes wanders bewilderingly; descriptions are either perfunctory or very detailed, especially in the case of computer specifications; the Swedish-into-British English translation at times is quaint if not distracting; most of the characters in it have the same last name of Vanger, making the family tree thoughtfully included a vital but clumsy reference.

So how could Larsson achieve the second-highest number of book sales in 2008 with all these shortcomings?

The short answer is that the “girl with the dragon tattoo,” Lisbeth Salander, whom Larsson characterized as a grown-up, dysfunctional Pippi Longstocking, is one of the most fascinating female characters to be portrayed in popular literature of the past 30 years or so. Larsson barely allows the reader into her methodical mind so that through much of the novel she is an enigma – almost moronic to those who continue to misjudge her abilities. But when she is crossed, she extracts revenge and tells the man who made the mistake of abusing her: “’In the future I’m going to have control over your life. When you least expect it, when you’re in bed asleep probably, I’m going to appear in the bedroom with this in my hand.’ She held up the taser …”

The other protagonist in the story, Mikael Blomkvist, has been, like Larsson, a publisher of a magazine. Larsson portrays him as passingly competent, forgiving, patient, and not really in charge of his destiny. But when he and Salander are thrown together, they become an unstoppable force. The pace of the novel picks up; the family connections begin to make sense; moral objections are overcome; mysteries are solved; characters take on their own identities; and the story whizzes along to the conclusion.

Part of the novel’s believability comes from Larsson’s expertise as a publisher and his ability to put technical details into terms that the average reader can understand, especially with computers and photography, both of which play crucial roles in the book. His examinations of financial institutions, like John Grisham’s descriptions of legal affairs, ring true. However, some details may be unlikely – for example, to hide the contents of an issue of Millenium, Blomkvist’s magazine, he orders it to be sent to another printer for publication – highly unlikely and almost impossible on the spur of the moment in the real world.

The entire novel is plot-driven, and sometimes characters seem to be afterthoughts and merely along for the ride. Occasionally Lisbeth’s actions require some author exposition and manipulation to account for some behaviors which seem out of character for her, and several of the male characters, most notably the lawyer who advises Blomkvist on the Vanger corporation affairs, are more conveyors of information than characters. Larsson’s skill clearly was in plotting rather than characterization, except for the female characters, who are clearly drawn.

The end of the story is a bit clumsy, as Larsson propels Salander back in and leaves just a bit of unfinished business as the book closes so that we know there’s more to come … but not until the next installment.

In spite of some freshman clumsiness in his first novel, Larsson clearly showed that he could skillfully resolve a mystery plot. As a journalist, he was able to convey concepts to the reader in economical, clear prose. But what lifts The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo above the ordinary is the character Lisbeth Salander, who is thrust like a frozen dagger into the plot, turning what might have been a simple follow-the-clues murder mystery into a psychological drama like no other mystery published recently.

Now retired after 34 years of teaching English, Spanish, and journalism in public, private, and government schools. Hobbies: DX'ing (Google it!), gardening, collecting a lot of crap that now fills my house (I bet I have older computers than anyone who has better sense!).


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