Friday, December 10, 2010

Prongs 19th Review : The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Preface: As some of our older readers may know, for the past 2 years or so I have been devoting myself to the reading of ‘Classics’ or at least what I consider to constitute classics. It is only recently that I have taken off the modern blinders I have been wearing (aka. My hand physically hiding titles when I walk into bookstores) and begun to play catch up on the last 15 years or so of literature. I have made a brief but succinct list of titles that are essential modern works and once those are done I can finally rejoin the rest of the world in embracing new releases. The ‘Millennium Trilogy’ was high up on the list of titles due to its international success as well as intriguing background of the now deceased author. Assuming that most of you have read at least the first book in this series, I will tell you right now there are some SPOILERS, but nothing that will absolutely ruin the story for you.

As I have only read the first part in the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ I was hesitant to write a review on a book that is meant to be accompanied by two other works. However, I have made the executive decision that while ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is meant to be read with its sequels, the novel can stand on its own as a piece of writing complete in all areas of ‘literary checkpoints.’ From the beginning author Stieg Larsson sets us on a slow, complicated journey with Casanova-journalist extraordinaire Mikael Blomkvist into a world of Swedish secrecy, seduction, and above all scandal. Scorned professionally after losing a brutal ‘libel’ case against a powerhouse industrialist, Mikael is given the perfect opportunity to reestablish his reputation when he meets the intriguing Henrik Vagner, ex-tycoon and devoted uncle to the 40-years missing Harriet Vagner. Henrik hires Mikael to aid him in the solving the seemingly impossible case of his missing niece and in return guarantees Mikael a way to win back his integrity at Mikael’s failing ‘Millennium Newspaper’.

Under the false pretenses of writing the ‘Vagner Family History,’ Mikael begins to blunder his way through the records of the intricate Vagner clan, unintentionally uncovering family secrets which have been buried for years. Mikael’s quest begins slowly but picks up speeds as our modern day heroine Lisbeth Salander’s story makes itself known. Working as a private eye, the ‘dragon tattooed’ Lisbeth Salander enters the story gently but makes soon her presence roughly felt proving herself to be a feminine force to be reckoned with. A friend of mine made the comment that Lisbeth seemed almost like a surprise to the author and I would have to agree. While the work seems to focus originally on Mikael, Lisbeth’s allure is undeniable as her character quickly becomes the unexpected femme fatale that literary lover’s dream of. Larsson takes his time uniting Lisbeth and Mikael, but once the two characters are finally brought together the story races ahead with full force keeping the reader on edge until the very end.

“In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status… On the other hand, there was no question of Advokat Bjurman going unpunished. Salnder never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.’

The supporting characters all lend a hand in the complicated web that the Vagner family has spun. Unless you have a proclivity for distinguishing Swedish names, I would suggest copying the family tree down and keeping it handy. The motivations of all characters, even minor ones, is essential to understanding the events that unfold and the justifications for almost every plot point. With out the complexity of every single characters morals, this book would easily have slipped off into 'thriller genre' obscurity.

This is the second book in a row I have read where the author seems to forgo elaborate prose for the sake of detailed action. The plot moves along at a slow simmer burning up the pages with its violent bursts of sexual and physical aggression that culminate at the big reveal. “Eighteen percent of women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” From these first words you know that this book is going to be brutal. The writing has a distinct ‘European’ feel, especially when Larsson tackles issues of sexuality and violence. Not a fan of the euphemism, Larsson writes explicitly about the sexual conquests and retributions of a variety of characters, laying out events in a blunt fashion that can set even the strongest of stomachs on edge. From Wikipedia I read that “Larsson, who was disgusted by sexual violence, witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. He never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth.” Through this story Larsson is able to empower that young girl as well as himself, creating an environment for him to seek vengeance on the ‘men who hate women’ (Which is the Swedish translation of the books title.)

Apart from the two major plot lines, ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is riddled with side stories and commentary about the state of political, economic, and moral affairs in Sweden. Larsson does a superb job in collecting bits of historical trivia and references to tie in the fact with the fiction, helping to immerse the reader in to a perhaps unmerited view of modern day Swedish life. With enough of the fantastical to keep it interesting, and enough of the factual to make it plausible this modern day mystery seems like it could be found on the headlines of tomorrows news. It is the kind of story that keeps entire towns discussing theories for days, the kind of events that ignite discussions. This is the book that the ‘Da Vinci Code’ wishes it could be.

I was impressed by ‘Dragon Tattoo’ for accomplishing all of the things I hope to walk away from a story with. Suspense, intrigue, style, and integrity; this work stands alone in the abundance of mystery-thrillers that can never seem to pull off all of these elements at once. As soon as I turned the last page I rushed to Amazon to order the next installment. If that work shows half of the command that ‘Dragon Tattoo’ did… I am sure I will be reviewing it too.


  1. I'm so glad you liked this book. It's easily one of my favorites. :D

    Enjoy the other two!

    PS: The Swedish version of the film is incredible.

  2. @Cary - Thanks for the comment! Can't wait to get started on the others. I will be watching the movie a.s.a.p as well!

  3. Great review! I hadn't heard the story from wikipedia that you mention. Very interesting. How sad, too, that Larsson is no longer with us to continue Lisbeth's saga. I read somewhere that there were rumors he had outlined several more books and there was speculation about them possibly being ghost written in the future. Not sure how I would feel about that.

    This book (and series) was one of my favorite reads of the year. I also saw the Swedish movie version of the first book, which was great (mostly due to the actress who played Lisbeth) even if parts of the story were left out.

    I envy you that you have two unread books of the series to go... :)

  4. Yes the movies are incredible! I've seen the first two.

  5. About the films: if you can get hold of them, see the tv-series instead. They're just longer versions of the films, but much better.

    And I've got to ask, what is the ‘European’ feel' you mention? I've encountered the idea before but I've never gotten a good explanation.

  6. @Biblio - You know someone told me that as well, about the unpublished works. Will have to do a little more research. And thanks I am always jealous of people reading books that I LOVE for the first time. I am always so excited for them.

    @Babycakes - Yea I think Im actually going to wait until I read the trilogy to watch the movies just so I can do it all at once! Excited to watch it though.

    @Nirinia - Ooo I wonder if that's on Netflix haha.

    No problem, I guess that was a broad generalization. Excluding the Sweedish words/companies every two seconds I did mean European more in his style of writing. As far as the 'European' feel about sexuality, I meant that the writing is much more blunt and direct. There is a habit of American writers to be a bit more round-a-bout when writing about violent sexuality, where as Larsson just puts it all out there as if he was saying 'and then I ate a sandwich' instead of 'and then I *insert intensely dirty sentence*.

    And for an overall sense of 'European' writing
    I completely break it down in an uber nerdy syntax kind of way. For example, the simple insertion of some prepositions can give a sentence a foreign feel.

    Here's a small example.

    "In the evening he went to the cinema to see "The Lord of the Rings", which he had never before had time to see."

    Now that might not seem like a dead give away, but see enough sentences with 'which he had never before' as opposed to 'which he had not' you might start to pick up on a different 'feel'

    Hopefully that helped. It wasn't a great explanation. I'm going to think harder on this and get back to you haha.

  7. I watched the first 2 movies through Netflix;) I wasn't aware it was a t.v. series, but I can't imagine watching a version made for t.v. They are such graphic movies, it would be interesting to see what they did with it, and how they handled some of the situations.

  8. This 'European feel' is a really intriguing concept, being European it doesn't really stand out to me. I read the Millenium trilogy in Norwegian, and have looked at them in Swedish.

    I wonder how much of this 'European feel' is in fact poor translation? Reading the Norwegian translation, and looking over the Swedish original, nothing stood out as awkward. Larsson has a particular style, but his sentences aren't marked in any way. Which, to make you notice, they must be in the English translation. A good translator is supposed to keep the stylistic level of the original and try to keep the style of the author intact, but it shouldn't translate markedly, I think. Perhaps that's part of the problem, the translation?

    But I do understand what you mean about the treatment of sex. I think it's a Scandinavian thing, since I'm already deep into the generalisations. Our literary tradition is realism, harsh to varying degrees. And that means no euphemisms for sex.


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