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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have to admit that lately, real world fiction has left me cold.  Science fiction and fantasy can take us places we normally can’t go, but I find that most of the time any fictional tale set in a realistic setting can almost always be trumped by something that ACTUALLY happened.  The story elements of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo; corporate corruption, missing persons, murder, insidious family intrigue, European journalism libel laws (what!) and one unique title character ; all have real world stories that could no doubt be found that are more interesting.  However, Stieg Larsson has constructed this narrative in such a way that all those elements together become extremely compelling.  The real stars of this book though are the characters, and not just the tattooed one herself Lisbeth Salander.

I was expecting a very Salander centric story, and I’ll get to her, but the main character is actually a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist.  Convicted of libel in a story about a powerful Swedish business owner, Blomkvist takes a leave of absence from his magazine.  He’s quickly contacted by an aging rival businessman, one Henrik Vanger, to try to solve the mystery of what happened to his niece  Harriet years ago when she vanished from a small island owned by the Vanger family.  This setup reminded me a bit of an Agatha Christie novel at first, with a limited number of suspects and a very meticulous cast of characters, in this case the Vanger family, each with their own secrets and possible motivations.  I’d try to list the Vanger family here to give an idea of who the main players are, but it would be almost impossible.  To say that Larsson enjoys delving into his many characters is an understatement.  The number of characters is high, so much so that there is a helpful family tree in the first few pages of the book.   Salander eventually gets pulled in to helping Blomkvist with his investigation, although this happens much later in the book than one would suspect.  I won’t spoil anymore of the plot, but suffice it to say that our investigating hero’s start to uncover more sinister things as they delve deeper into Harriet’s disappearance.

Blomkvist is a character I enjoyed greatly.  Maybe it’s because I’m a journalism major, and I run this site with two guys who actually work at newspapers, but I enjoyed how he dealt with his conviction for libel.  Larsson doesn’t take the plunge entirely into the inner workings of the law or anything, but it was nice to see some excitement around a journalist, even if it was fiction!  I enjoyed Blomkvist not for his profession but for his sometimes glib attitude in the face of confrontation or danger.  He’s written as a serious character, but his wit and sarcasm really came through well.  By the time him and Salander finally do meet up I could tell those two personalities could make for some winning dialogue, and I was not disappointed.

Speaking of Lisbeth Salander, there is a reason the book’s title refers to her.  Though Blomkvist definitely gets more literary screen time (book time? word time?  hell if I know) Salander is the character to watch and the reason this book is a best seller with one movie series already done and another American remake (oh boy) already in the works.  (Although it’s David Fincher doing it, that’s pretty sweet).  Blessed with insanely high intelligence, computer skills, and a photographic memory, Salander is balanced out by a near total lack of social skills or empathy.  When we are let inside her head by Larsson she seems to almost work like a machine, working her way through possibilities until she sees a way to achieve a desired outcome.  Her handling of her Swedish equivalent of a parole officer (although in her situation he has even more power, but you get the idea) is at times disturbing, brilliant, even more disturbing, and sort of hilarious.  At times she seems to hate everything and treat everybody as mere tools to serve her current motivation, but her moments of emotion break through in spectacular ways.

I realize I’m remaining pretty cryptic on the plot, but it really is one of those things that the less you know going in the better.  Two warnings are in order though:

First is that Larsson loves himself some details.  LLLOOOOOVES it.  When Blomkvist enters a cabin for the first time, you are going to learn everything there is to know about the god damn cabin.  The colors, how many rooms, is it modern or rustic, sparse or decorated?  Explanation of Vanger family members are also very long-winded, with the personal and family history mini biography accompanying each character introduction.  Now, like any well written book, some of these things will come back to be relevant.  Larsson might have been trying to mask important details by putting them among very mundane ones and in that he very much succeeds.  I just think he overdid it a tad.  Books can do things movies can’t such as providing the level of back story that Larsson does here.  I think the book just becomes so dense at points, with long periods of not a ton happening, that maybe those 15 pages of irrelevant details could have been cut to get to the next page turner section a bit faster.  The start of the book in particular has a walking through sand kind of feel.  That being said, I urge you to stick with it!  The story builds and builds, and when it hits the pinnacle it’s spectacular.

The second warning is even more of a real warning, as in GRAPHIC CONTENT AHEAD.  I referenced Agatha Christie earlier but she never wrote anything like this!  I won’t give anything away, but just know my friend created the phrase “awkward rape” (as opposed to normal rape, because that isn’t horrific enough) to describe a scene in the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo movie.  The book does justice to that phrase.

So yeah, it took me a while to get on the Stieg Larsson train.  If you were like me and for whatever reason just never gave the book a thought, correct that.  This is a compelling crime drama, character drama, and corporate thriller all packed in to one with two captivating characters.  The European setting gives it a sense of freshness (for me at least) in the sense that I feel like I haven’t read much in this setting before.  It’s the first fiction in a while that has grabbed my interest and held it.  It’s a deserved best seller.

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3 Responses

  1. Good review and thanks for not spoiling too much plot. I’ve read this book off-and-on on my Kindle, but it’s never pulled me in. Not the fault of the book really, but more from my ridiculously short attention span. The only thing I can focus on anymore are short Star Wars novels–preferably the comics. I blame college. Oh yeah, and tattoo has two t’s in the middle :).

  2. lol nice catch, woops

  3. […] Elrood picked up the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I decided to give it a go myself. Despite some […]

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