Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

March 24, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

The latest crime fiction phenomenon to sweep the globe is the Millennium Trilogy (over 27 million copies sold) by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson.  The first novel of that series is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the award-winning book that’s just everywhere at the moment.

I see people reading it on the train.  I hear people chatting about it in class (about how lucrative crime fiction is!).  I even overheard someone raving about it in a lift.  “It’s good,” she said, nodding.  “It’s really good.”  So I decided to check it out.

The verdict?  Pretty good, but not worthy of the worldwide craze in my opinion.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immensely complex crime novel.  There are two central characters — a disgraced journalist by the name of Mikael Blomkvist, and the wild and unpredictable titular character, Lisbeth Salander, a young security specialist with a difficult past — but there is a whole host of secondary and minor characters, and Larsson has a detailed biography for just about all of them.

The core of the story is actually quite simple.  A journalist is asked to research the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from a wealthy dynastic family, believed to be dead for forty years.  It is the ultimate cold case, made more intriguing by the fact that the island on which the supposed murder took place was sealed off from the rest of the world, limiting the suspects to a number of unique and eccentric characters.

However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is anything by straightforward.  There are subplots galore, and even the subplots have subplots.  In the way fantasy writers often do, Larsson has really created an entire new world, meticulously researched and thought through, from family trees to chronologies to even complicated corporate structures.

Some people love this type of comprehensiveness, but for me, it was overkill.  Yes, you do get to understand the history of all these characters extremely well, but at 554 pages (my paperback version) there is an awful amount of exposition.  In fact, probably close to an entire quarter of the novel comprises lengthy biographies and back stories of key characters.

To Larsson’s credit, he has created some very interesting characters.  There’s not a lot of black and white — everyone has skeletons in the closet and things they would like to hide, and that’s what makes the novel intriguing to read.  The unusual heroine Lisbeth Salander, in particular, is one of the most original and complex characters I’ve come across.

Another thing that struck me about the book was how dark it was.  It’s clearly not meant for those with an aversion to violence and taboo (but real) subjects.  And underlying all of this is a stern political and social message which Larsson punches into our subconscious.  I suppose the original translation of the book’s title, “Men Who Hate Women”, will give you a fair idea of what I’m talking about.

I’ve already touched upon Larsson’s style (ie lots of exposition), but there’s more to it.  Larsson is great storyteller that likes to feed you lots of information.  The way Larsson has written The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is almost like a detective’s journal at times.  He describes all the daily rituals and mundane activities with as much precision as the fun stuff, like he’s trying to give you a full and complete picture of the characters’ lives.  Again, I can understand why some people like it, but it didn’t get me going as much as I wanted it to.

Don’t get me wrong, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the more intelligent and sophisticated crime thrillers out there.  I read it a lot faster than I thought I would, which must mean it is pretty good.  It ticks the right boxes — a compelling premise, a complex plot and unique characters — but to be perfectly honest, I don’t quite understand the superlatives being heaped onto it.  Maybe I should read the two other novels in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

3.5 stars out of 5

[PS: poor Stieg Larsson died of a massive heart attack at age 50, and all his hugely successful novels were published posthumously.  He was a politically active journalist by day, amateur crime novelist by night.]