The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

May 22, 2010

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

And the fury that animates this book is compelling. Lisbeth Salander, the twenty-three year-old girl whose description titles the book, is the demon-haunted star. She is at once sympathetic and thrilling. I doubt any women want her past, but I am sure most want her grit. Most men too.

Salander was a girl who fell through the cracks of Sweden’s social system and developed a hard-edged personality that resulted in her being labeled slow, dangerous, and incompetent to manage her own affairs. As the book begins, she is under the guardianship of a very honorable man who treats her with respect. She controls her own finances and works as a freelance investigator for a security firm. The head of the firm, Armansky, originally hired Salander as a favor to Salander’s guardian. Salander, of course, made good and is now the star researcher at the firm, valued by Armansky for her thoroughness and ability to uncover secrets. Salander will not remain comfortable for many pages.

Mikael Blomkvist is the lead male in this thriller. He begins the book as a principled journalist being sentenced to jail for committing libel against a powerful industrial magnate, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. An old friend of his had given Blomkvist information regarding some dirty dealing by Wennerstrom. Blomkvist, investigative reporter that he is, digs, writes a story, and the story turns out to be false. The reader is not told until late in the book the details of how and why the story Blomkvist wrote ended in his being tried for libel. The mystery of the libel is one of many threads with which Larsson weaves this complicated tale.

Another thread involves the third most important character: Henrik Vanger. On his birthday, every year but one for forty-three years, he has received a pressed flower in a frame. His niece, Harriet Vanger, started the tradition as a child. The prologue shows Henrik receiving the forty-fourth specimen. He believes Harriet’s killer continues to send the flowers to torment him. He is eighty-two and wants to solve Harriet’s murder before he dies. Henrik decides to hire an investigative reporter. Enter Blomkvist.

Larsson manages plotting extremely well. I had seen the Dutch movie based on this book, so I actually knew a number of key plot points. However, fitting this 590 page (in paperback) book into a two-hour movie required a number of cuts and significant simplifications. The novel is packed with intricate plot lines. In some cases, a particular subplot seems far removed from the main action, while, in others, the connection is apparent even while the resolution is not. Larsson manages to pull all of the strands together into not one, but multiple satisfying ends. The movie was quite enjoyable despite the simplifications, but the book is better.

Small puzzles and intriguing side stories are introduced throughout to keep the reader’s appetite whetted and are resolved for little payoffs along the way to the final reveals. I use the plural, because there are several large mysteries, each of which has its own resolution. And they all are resolved satisfactorily without the denouement feeling entirely contrived or inevitable.

The rage in this book is not only Salander’s, though her emotion and her personality drive the emotional currents within. Each of the four parts begins with a statistic. The statistic for Part 1 is:

Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.

The abuse of women is a major theme throughout the novel. The cold quantitative data contrasts well with the quickly moving, emotionally-charged story lines and the indomitably vulnerable lead female. The technique may be a little heavy-handed, but this is not primarily a message book, nor a feel good one.

For instance, Salander is not spared harsh treatment, but:

Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.

She is also, as we are told at one point, not passive. She is a character women admire and men respect. And vice versa.

Characterization is a strong point of the novel. Salander is an excellent creation; Blomkvist has subtle complexities underlying his affable, passionate, playboy persona. The Vanger family is large and many of them do blend together, but the principle heroes and villains almost all have three dimensions. The same can be said of other characters. Given the large number of suspects and the many subplots, flat characters and types are necessary, but I am still impressed with the complexity that Larsson has managed to give so many of the characters. Heroes are not only heroes. They have weaknesses, flaws, and foibles. Despite the pace of the story, Larsson fills in important psychological details of his characters which lends credibility to the plotting. The characters do not read like puppets, doing what they are told, but like self-directed agents, reacting to events.

This is the end of the good stuff. The novel is a successful thriller. I would even say it is unusually successful for a thriller, though I am not an aficionado of the genre. But I would not say that most lovers of literary fiction will enjoy it. This is not a literary thriller. There are prose moments that may grate.

Despite a lack of poetry, “anon” appears at least twice in this book, apparently in earnest.

Blomkvist was enraged. But he had never managed to be enraged at Erika Berger for very long.

Perhaps its just me, but this just sounds strange.

Sometimes, the wording just feels awkward. Whether this is an issue of translation, I cannot say. But Larsson sometimes struggles to get across an emotion or mental state:

Salander felt that her composure was barely skin-deep and that she really wasn’t in complete control of her nerves.

There are a number of cases in which characters run through things in their mind, unnecessarily to my ear:

She sat on the worn sofa in her living room for one whole evening running through the situation in her mind.

After going through her address book in her mind…

He went through in his mind what he knew about Cecilia.

I do not mean to be a pedant, but to alert you to what you are getting and what you are not. The sentences are often poorly constructed. If this will ruin your experience, it is best to stay away. If you tend not to mark grammatical mistakes or unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences with a red pen in your mind, then don’t worry about it. For this kind of book, the faster you read, the better it is.

So, if you want to luxuriate in silky smooth prose with pleasing metaphors grab Bellow or Woolf or Nabokov and let this one lie. If you are in the mood for excitement and complex plotting, grab The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.