Newest Review: ... and epilogue to introduce and conclude the story, then the main body of the story being divided up into 4 sections. Each of the main 4... more
The Best Tattoo This Side of Edinburgh
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Member Name: SWSt
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Advantages: Complex, intriguing and intelligent
Disadvantages: May be a little too much detail for some; not all references translate well
Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist for magazine Millennium. When he is convicted of libelling a leading Swedish industrialist, he is faced with professional ruin. Help comes in the unlikely form of Henrik Vanger, former owner of a major corporation who hires Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet, who vanished without trace over 40 years previously in highly mysterious circumstances. This, in turn, introduces him to the odd, but highly intelligent Lisbeth Salander, the titular Girl.
Despite claims to the contrary, there's not actually a great deal of originality to Dragon Tattoo. As the author has his main character freely admit on several occasions, it is essentially a "locked room" mystery, similar to those written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie at the start of the twentieth century. Yet, this lack of originality is not an issue because Larsson proves just as adept at fashioning a compelling story as those earlier writers. He constructs the mystery in an expert way, outlining the problem to the reader and challenging them to try and resolve it before the book's conclusion. So challenged, you are hooked and read avidly as he starts to peel back the secrets of the Vanger family. Information and clues are drip-fed to the reader on a regular basis and keep you interested and intrigued; eager to find out where this latest clue will lead.
At the same time, the investigation manages to stay highly realistic. Blomkvist doesn't stumble across clues that other people have been too stupid to notice or have a sudden and unlikely flash of inspiration that allows him to solve the mystery at a stroke. Instead, he has to work incredibly hard, looking for angles that no-one else has thought of. It's here that his training as an investigative journalist is convincing, as he looks for the odd and out of place. Moreover, Larsson is not afraid to take Blomkvist (and the reader) down dead ends. Just like a real investigation, some seemingly promising clues turn out to have a perfectly innocent explanation, fizzle out disappointingly or lead to dead ends. This helps to build the tension and the sense of mystery. Whenever a new clue is uncovered, you are never sure whether it is going to result in a major breakthrough or nowhere at all. This means that the reader is constantly changing their mind about who the guilty party is, based on new evidence uncovered and you are never really sure until the final revelation is made.
Lest you are running away with the idea that this is a simple murder mystery, it is much deeper than that. As a long standing liberal, Larsson brings in concepts relating to politics, attitudes towards women and big corporations. For the most part, this is not done in a heavy handed, preachy way (although there are a couple of occasions when that is the case), but forms a natural part of the main story and adds further layers of depth. The issue of the treatment of women, and men's attitude towards them, for example, is a crucial, central theme which has direct relevance to the story being told.
Larsson provides an incredible amount of detail in his narrative, which is a bit of a double edged sword. He clearly knows the world of publishing and finance very well, and provides plenty of convincing information. Quite a bit of the book (particularly concerning Blomkvists's experience and background) is autobiographical, and Larsson is sticking to that old adage of writing what he knows about. This helps to create a superb and convincing atmosphere.
He also provides a great deal of background information about his characters. The way they behave, the environments in which they operate and their attitudes to each other are all informed by things that have happened in their lives. Each of the characters carries a great deal of baggage which affects their outlook and Larsson provides this contextual information so that we can better understand the characters.
However, providing this much detail can act as a drag on the main narrative and there were times when I felt that the book was padded with a little too much unnecessary detail. Particularly at the start, I found the pace rather slow and Dragon Tattoo a little hard to get into. I remember Mrs SWSt asking me was I enjoying my book when I was on about page 85. My honest answer at that point was "I don't know. It hasn't really got going yet". Of course, the real value of all that extra information pays off later on, as the rich, rounded characters and convincing environment means that once it has got going, you are gripped. I just worry that some readers may put the book down in frustration before they reach that point.
There's no doubt that it's the richness of the characters that really make this book. Blomkvist makes for an engaging and charismatic lead character. Tenacious, charming, intelligent and somewhat obstinate, he is an interesting character to follow. Similarly, social misfit Lisbeth Salander is a rather different from the lead females we have come to expect from modern novels. She should be utterly dislikeable; her complete disregard for social norms, her calculated, detached outlook on life and her almost complete lack of apparent emotion should make her repellent. Yet, Larsson manages to imbue her with a strong likeable streak that makes her anti-authoritarian attitude interesting, rather than aggressive.
Some of the other characters don't get quite the same level of treatment, but all slot well into the book. There are so many members of the Vanger family, for example that some are better developed than others. There were times when I had to stop and try and think who was who and how they related to some of the other characters (a family tree diagram is helpfully provided at the start of the book for exactly this reason), but this was not a serious impediment to enjoyment.
The only other issue is a very minor one. This book was obviously written in Sweden by a Swedish author with a Swedish audience in mind. As such, there are liberal references to Swedish politicians or Swedish events that would be very familiar to Larsson's core audience, but which are alien to the wider readership the book has attracted. None of these events are central to the plot, but it does occasionally provide the non-Swedish reader with a sense of dislocation; that they are not approaching the book from quite the same angle as the author. Credit, however, must go the translator, who ensures that the language flows very well and this sense of dislocation is limited to a few specific references.
If you've not read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo yet then there's a further piece of good news: it's cheap. Because is shifted so many copies these are now starting to filter down to charity and second hand book stores, where they can be picked up for a couple of quid. I bought this, plus its two sequels for less than the recommended retail price of just one of the titles, which can't be bad!
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: As good as I had been led to believe