Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

This review is probably not going to be much of a "scoop," really.  This is possibly the most talked-about book since The Da Vinci Code, and for none of the "inflamed conservative opinion" reasons, either.  If you follow popular literature at all, you're aware of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  If you follow movies and popular movie stars at all, you're aware of it.  If you only listen to NPR and consume no other media at all, you're REALLY aware of this book.  It's been kept pretty solidly in the news recently by the U.S. release of the third and possibly final chapter in the Millennium series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. There is also a sense of fascination concerning the circumstances of its publishing.  Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson wrote three manuscripts (Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and Hornet's Nest), and then died of a heart attack in 2004 before they could be published.  In addition to the three novels of the de facto trilogy, there is known to exist three quarters of a fourth novel, as well as possible outlines or early manuscripts of two more, currently in possession of Larsson's partner, the rights still tantalizingly undecided. 

At the beginning of this cloud of media attention is a gripping, if dense, page-turner of a crime thriller.

The story, set in Sweden in the early 2000's, focuses around two primary characters.  Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative reporter for a small but influential magazine called "Millennium".  Lisbeth Salander (she of the dragon tattoo) is a researcher for a security company who harbors a variety of secrets, and a severe distrust of authority.  As the story opens, Blomkvist is being convicted of libel against a big time financier whom he was trying to expose in his magazine as a crook.  Disgraced, Blomkvist takes time away from the magazine to avoid further conflicts and collect himself, part of it forced due to the prison sentence he is handed.  But his self-pity and depression are interrupted when he is offered a seemingly innocuous job by the patriarch of an old Swedish industrial family, the Vangers.  The public face of the job is to write the Vanger family history and biography of Henrik Vanger, but the old man also gives Blomkvist a secret agenda--find out the fate of his niece, who disappeared in 1966 and is presumed dead.  In the course of this investigation, Blomkvist enlists the help of Salander, whose gifts as a researcher could serve well in the investigation of a 40-year-old crime. 

Lisbeth Salander's primary gifts, it soon becomes apparent, are the photographic memory she considers a curse, world-class hacker skills (which she naturally likes to keep on the down-low), and her near-complete disinterest in societal norms.  According to the Swedish authorities, she is legally incompetent, and placed under the guardianship of the state, even though she is in her mid-20's.  The origins of this situation are only hinted at in the first book (a childhood event referred to ominously as "All the Evil"), but suffice to say she is a person who deals with problems in a completely different way than the average member of society.  Eventually, the two work together to determine the fate of Harriet, and in the process uncover something much darker than anyone expected to find in the idyllic setting of a northern Swedish hamlet.

The book really is a riveting thriller, and once the reader gets into the meat of the plot, it's hard to put down.  The trouble, and I'm not the first to mention this, is the sheer mass of story here.  Larsson weaves plots within plots, and drives several parallel story lines throughout the book.  Although all of these eventually do work their way back together at the end, it can be daunting to sift through the large stretches of details concerning Swedish politics and journalism, as well as the sprawling complexity of the Vanger family itself.  

Then there is Larsson's writing style--the man liked details in a way that only an investigative reporter would, and some readers may find it difficult to march through.  The meticulous effort that goes into describing things like driving directions and grocery lists can get tiresome, but in some ways it helps the reader identify with Lisbeth's singular, photographic view of the world.  It also puts us in the middle of contemporary Sweden in a very solid way.  Before reading this book, my knowledge of the country didn't extend much farther than Ace of Base and IKEA, but afterward I feel like I could reasonably get around the place if I got the pronunciations right.  You also get a feel for the national identity of a dedicated welfare state, an idea so foreign to the U.S. it's used as campaign mud.  Still, the details occasionally bog down the story, and at times you find yourself pushing for the next chapter break for a change of scenery.

The book could have used an editor with a more ruthless hand, and had it been published under more conventional circumstances that might have been the case.  Still, the payoff is definitely worth it.  Salander is one of the most fascinating characters I've ever read.  She forces us as readers to re-examine our ideas of exactly what constitutes virtue and vice, right and wrong, and the way we would deal with the world if we didn't care what anyone else though of us.

Grade:  A-

Previous Entries:

Cyberdrome (Joseph and David Rhea),  9/8/10
33 A.D. and The Lake (David McAfee), 8/25/10

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