Book Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg LarssonPosted: February 14, 2012
A few weeks back I went to see the English film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a grim little movie that I nevertheless thought was a great film (full review here). The book had been a bit of a phenomenon a while ago and I’d heard tons about it without actually getting round to reading it, but I was immensely curious to check it out though, having heard good things and it being one of those blockbuster novels you feel you should check out just to stay in the loop a bit and see what all the fuss is about (Like the Harry Potter series, or The Da Vinci Code, although I haven’t read that).
My Dad picked up a copy just after Christmas, due to also having heard much about it and knowing lots of people had read it. I warned him that it was apparently quite unpleasant but he went on with it, but on finishing the book destroyed his copy, feeling that it was inappropriate to leave in a charity shop and didn’t want to pass it on to anyone.
I was slightly miffed about this, having wanted to read it. But I picked up a cheap copy and set about reading it. Its always odd reading a book after you’ve seen the film version as you get a prolonged feeling of deja vu and can, to some extent, see what’s coming.
But there are always differences, and Stieg Larsson’s book is slightly different from the film.
The plot follows a Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter who has suffered a humiliating public downfall following a libel trial, and defeated and fed up takes a job investigating a 40 year old mystery for a rich businessman, Henrik Vanger.
Vanger’s niece, Harriet, vanished in the 60s and Vanger is convinced she has been murdered, most likely by a member of his own family. The disappearance happened on an island with most of the sprawling family tree in attendance and with the island cut off for most of the day.
Blomkvist is skeptical but intrigued and takes the case, slowly becoming dedicated to working out the mystery. Along the way he begins to discover more and more about the incredibly dysfunctional Vanger family, which for the most part is a parade of horrible people.
At the same time there is Lisbeth Salander, a gifted hacker and social outcast who’s slight frame and silence hides a ferociously intellegent person, albeit one with serious issues with communication and emotions. She is aware of Blomkvest having investigated him before, and her life unfold seperately. A ward of the state she faces an abusive legal guardian who she inflicts a painful revenge on.
As Blomkvest’s investigation uncovers new, disturbing evidence that links the missing teenage girl with a series of grizzly murders he requests a researcher and is given Salander. They work together to reveal that Blomkvest theory of the connection has legs and that the murder victims he has identified may only be the tip of the iceberg.
The investigation has changed, not just to find a missing girl but also to discover the identity of a brutal, psychopathic serial killer.
Like with the film this isn’t easy going, Larsson’s writing details the grotesque crimes with a cold, dispassionate writing style that in a way makes them all the more shocking. And its not the only dark aspect of the storyline, Salander’s misfortunes makes for uncomfortable, sickening reading. The brutality at the book is bad enough, but the hardest part is the general, bleak world view.
Blomkvest alone appears to be a decent person, and the Vanger family are a nightmare, but dishonesty, perversion and dark secrets seem to lurk at every turn, and seemingly every Swedish cupboard must groan under the weight of all the skeletons they hide.
Adding to the grim feeling is the fact that every section of the book is accompanied by a worrying statistic about violence against women in Sweden, whether these are real stats or a creation of Larsson, they only serve to further darken the mood. Bad enough to imagine these horrors in a fictional world, but the use of statistics (authentic or not) grounds it in the real world and left me extremely bummed out.
There is very little respite from this grimness, with there being very little in terms of humour, save for some dark jokes and comments. There are some hopeful flashes- Blomkvest’s warmth to Salander is touching and her slight thawing is also engaging.
But I don’t want to give the wrong opinion of the book, yes its not for the faint of heart, and some of it makes for flinch inducing reading, but on the whole the book is enjoyable, although that feels like the wrong word to use in this context. Intriguing? Captivating?
Larsson’s writing style is pared back, no frills but this works. There’s a ruthless efficiency in the writing that keeps the story constantly in motion and means that you plough through massive chunks in single sittings.
The mystery is intriguing enough that like Blomkvest you begin to get sucked into it and as the revelations keep coming Larsson lets it unfold in a thrilling, utterly absorbing way. Its a brilliantly engrossing book and a definite pageturner, one of those books that you struggle to put down. Many times I reached the end of a chapter that I’d set as a stopping point only to decide to give it another few pages, so completely involved in the book that I just wanted to keep going.
Larsson also creates decent characters, most of the supporting cast are fairly well rounded and believable in the bleak world he creates. The horrible Vangers never feel like caricatures because he makes it believable that the family environment and history would produce these unpleasant individuals.
Blomkvest is a good protagonist, riddled with flaws and fallable but engaging, charming and likable. He may blunder along at times but there is genuine intellegence and integrity in the character, and you do care for him.
But the novel really has two protagonists, and Salander is Larsson’s real triumph. A very odd, enigmatic character he nonetheless shades her in just enough to make her sympathetic while leaving enough hidden to draw you in even more. Her world view may be warped and she’s clearly a troubled individual, there’s enough in the character for you to warm to a bit and also Larsson writes her with subtle skill meaning that you do begin to understand a little of why she does things the way she does.
Also, with repeated references to an event in her past that Salander refers to as “All The Evil” he ensures that you are still hooked in as the book ends, wanting to know more about Salander and her past, as well as seeing what the future holds for her relationship with Blomkvest.
I will definitely be picking up a copy of the second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire.
Verdict: A grim, but thrilling crime drama. Larsson’s world may be extremely bleak but thanks to his good work and simple writing style it becomes an engrossing thriller that keeps you involved to the last page. Not for the faint of heart though. 8/10
Any thoughts? You know what to do. TTFN