May 11, 2010

Book review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," by Stieg Larsson

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieg Larsson
Alfred A. Knopf

Sheesh, what is it with crime novels and Scandinavians these days?! Because for those who don't know, there's been an explosion in this particular literary genre in countries like Norway and Sweden in the last few years, not only in international reputation but sometimes in sheer numbers; just to cite one infamous example, last year there were twice as many novels about murders published in Sweden as there were actual murders in Sweden. And some of the most famous of these novels include the three books in the so-called "Millennium" series by the late Stieg Larsson, named after the left-leaning investigative magazine where most of the characters work, when they're not running around solving bizarre crimes; the first of these, 2005's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (finally published in the US in 2008), has gone on to become a legitimate international sensation and was even adapted into a major Hollywood-style feature that first screened here earlier this year, none of which Larsson got to enjoy because of sadly dying almost immediately after turning in these three manuscripts to his publisher in the early 2000s.

It's all this attention that made me decide to read Dragon Tattoo myself, despite not being much of a crime fan as regular readers know; in fact, in some ways that makes today's review even more appropriate than normal, in that I'm the exact person who advertisers are talking about when they say, "If you read only one crime novel this year, make it this one!" Hey, I only do read one crime novel a year, so I guess we'll just see whether this one should've been it or not, won't we? But the good news is that the book truly does live up to its hype, even if it is occasionally guilty of the most notorious problems within this genre in general (but more on that in a bit); and one of the main reasons for this is that it's an unusually complex novel for this genre, presenting in actuality three different mysteries existing in concentric circles relative to the plot, with three investigations taking place simultaneously that sometimes overlap to inform the others. This is something you can point to in any genre and be able to say, "Okay, here's one of the things that made this a breakthrough cross-audience hit, when so many other well-done genre novels fail at such a thing;" then add Larsson's surprisingly mature voice as a genre novelist, the mostly subdued tone for this being essentially a serial-killer tale (er, mostly subdued -- but again, more on this in a bit), and the inventive way Larsson introduces so many Agatha-Christie-type classic genre elements to a very modern setting, and you start easily understanding why this has become the proverbial "one crime novel you should read this year."

The story mainly revolves around a world-weary middle-aged investigative reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, who as the novel opens has just been convicted of libel against a powerful, secretive George-Buffet-type tycoon, despite we as readers learning that Millennium magazine actually owns the evidence that could've cleared Blomkvist's name; so that becomes the first mystery right off the bat, of why he instead agreed to an enormous fine and three months in a minimum-security prison, the consequence of not bringing the evidence forward. Then in the meanwhile, Blomkvist is hired soon afterwards by the aging patriarch of the equally powerful Vanger family of industrialists (to be specific, octogenarian Henrik Vanger), to ostensibly write a history of this dysfunctional extended family and the umbrella corporation they have jointly owned for a century, but which in actuality is an excuse for Blomkvist to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Henrik's niece Harriet almost forty years previous, and to determine once and for all whether she was actually murdered or not (no body was ever found), and if so who the murderer was; and so that then becomes the book's second mystery, the most traditional one and which takes up the bulk of the manuscript, consisting of Blomkvist acting like a private eye and slowly uncovering the truth about what happened on that day so many years ago. But then this also opens up a third mystery, of why Vanger would hire a disgraced journalist to take on this kind of assignment in the first place, when clearly it would be more prudent to hire an actual private investigator or retired police officer; and this mystery is mostly explored through the full-time corporate spy and feisty punk-rock pixie Lisbeth Salander (the dragon-tattooed girl of the book's title), the one hired by Vanger to do Blomkvist's initial background check, and who becomes fascinated with the case herself away from the knowledge of any of the other parties involved.

And why yes, there's a good reason the entire book is named after Salander, despite her playing a relatively minor role in the overall storyline, and that's because of her being one of the most bewitchingly complex characters in all of modern genre literature: mousy and close-lipped yet explosively violent when she needs to be, an internationally known computer hacker with body image issues and a maddeningly complex sexual orientation -- she seemingly veers between wanton bisexuality and utter asexuality, with a burning riot-grrl hatred for most men except for when she's getting completely obsessed over one -- she is the type of person who keeps everyone around her on their nervous toes at all times, and she quite clearly steals the show in nearly every scene in which she appears. And then in the meanwhile, this set-up cleverly lets Larsson introduce illegal elements to the investigations that a traditional detective would never be able to get away with, especially as the novel continues and Salander and Blomkvist's lives start intersecting more and more; and this is yet another thing that you can point to as far as why this particular book ended up becoming a breakout mainstream hit, in that it includes a wealth of other story elements besides simply a member of the law methodically doing their official job, usually enough to make existing genre fans happy (think of all those endless cop shows), but not those outside of that genre.

In fact, like I said, it's a true delight to see the ways that Larsson adds a whole series of story elements to this book that shouldn't rightly be able to exist within such a modern setting, many of them ironically elements from the classic Agatha Christie days that helped popularize this genre in the first place: take for a good example the way he pulls off a "locked house" type mystery here (you know, with a creaky Victorian mansion full of suspects, one of whom you definitively know beforehand will turn out to be the murderer), but without the actual creaky Victorian mansion, by having the main crime instead take place on the private village-sized island where all the Vangers and their help have traditionally lived, with only one bridge on and off the island that just happened to have been shut down the day of Harriet's disappearance because of a serious car accident. There's a reason that the locked-house mystery has become so popular over the years, because of it providing a tidy framing device to make the story both more dramatic and easier to understand, and it says a lot I think about Larsson as a writer that he's able to introduce all the cleverness of a locked-house mystery without having to resort to the literal cliche, which of course by now has become so overused as to make most people roll their eyes at the mere mention of it.

Now, all this said, Dragon Tattoo unfortunately does contain several elements that drive me a little batty about the crime genre, which is why I'm not much of a fan of the genre in general; for example, like previously mentioned, after having most of the manuscript take on a blessedly subdued tone, it was disappointing to see the villain at the end turn out to be the exact kind of cackling, mustache-twirling, cartoonishly insane monster that you see in all those horrid serial-killer Silence of the Lambs ripoffs. Also, I have to confess that I was even more disappointed by Larsson's decision to add a sexual/romantic element to the relationship between the forty-something Blomkvist and the twenty-something Salander, which I found not only completely unnecessary but also a bad clash against the strong characterizations of them that Larsson had already carefully established; and for that matter, there's also the whole pointless short saga about Salander being molested by one of her government-appointed case workers, and what she decides to do to get revenge, a part of the story that comes and goes so fast that it's hard to see why it was even included, and that seems to exist solely as a lazy way for Larsson to be able to say "Salander kicks ass!," a fact we already know because of the much more naturalistic scenes that came before.

All in all, though, like I said, I found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be a real dark delight, and can easily see why this has recently become one of the most popular genre reads in the entire country in the last couple of years. Given that this just squeaked in under the deadline for being considered a "contemporary" book here (a designation I apply to any book whose American version came out in the last two years), and thus eligible for CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see this title pop up here again come December. It comes highly recommended today, to both crime fans and non-fans alike.

Out of 10: 9.7

Read even more about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:52 PM, May 11, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |