Book review: Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

As much of a “trendsetter” I am when it comes to such questionable masterpieces such as “Modelland” and “A Shore Thing“, I am always, always woefully late  when it comes to what is actually popular on most readers’ shelves.

For instance, I only started reading Paolo Coelho around his 29th (or is it 28th?) novel, “The Winner Stands Alone”, and my reaction wasn’t exactly the most positive one. I haven’t read a single work by Haruki Murakami, and I haven’t started on “The Hunger Games” yet, although I’ve been itching to do so. As for “Harry Potter”, I only started reading it when “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” came out. I’ve never really gotten into Nicholas Sparks or Mitch Albom, and the thought of even thumbing through Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life” makes me want to punch somebody’s nalgas.

Having outlined my un-hipness, it therefore shouldn’t surprise you guys that I only started reading Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” earlier this week. I was planning to read it anyway — the US adaptation of the movie airs on the first of February — but I was invited to a press preview and I had to push it up my to-read list because I didn’t want to go in there without having read the book.

Unfortunately, I was unable to finish the book, and I had to go into the movie without knowing what I was going to be in for. I’ll talk about how the movie measures up to the book in another post, but I will say this — the movie certainly didn’t spoil the experience of reading the book.

In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, we follow the story of disgraced financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist and private investigator slash hacker Lisbeth Salander, who find their paths crossing because of the ongoing mystery surrounding the rich and dysfunctional Vanger family.

Almost forty years ago, 16-year-old Harriet Vanger disappeared from her hometown without leaving any clue as to her whereabouts. Her granduncle Henrik is obsessed with finding her, and entices Blomkvist to investigate the case with the promise of information against the financial speculator that set up Blomkvist’s fall from grace in the first place.

As the investigation progresses, however, Blomkvist soon discovers that he may be out of his depth and finds himself working alongside Salander, whom the Vangers had previously hired to do a background check on him. As the pair delve deeper and deeper into the history of the Vanger family, they soon find out that there may be something much more sinister behind Harriet’s disappearance. Will they solve the mystery in time, or find themselves at a dead end — in more ways than one?

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t read a lot of crime novels. But from those that I’ve read, the formula has always been that the first chapter is where you reveal the dramatic event that will power the mystery that runs throughout the book.

It was kind of refreshing to find “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” straying from the formula right from the very beginning of the book. Rather than a dramatic kidnapping or a gruesome murder, what we get is a quiet scene between two old men  pondering the mystery of a flower.

This quiet lingers on throughout the novel, with very little happening for about 3/4 of the book other than Blomkvist and Salander doing a lot of research and rifling through photographs. It’s a good thing that I’m fascinated with family histories and Larsson’s snide remarks about Swedish journalism because I can clearly see how some people may find this boring.

Those that dismiss this book because of that particular style, however, are sure to miss out. When Larsson starts things moving, it’s hard for him and the reader to stop, making the last few hundred pages definite page-turners. Now you realize the skill behind those pages and pages of history and research — it’s like snow that’s quietly piled up, easy to ignore, but before you know it it’s descending on you as an unstoppable avalance.

It also helps that Lisbeth Salander is such a fascinating character. There is something very primal and feral about her, especially when Larsson first introduces her in the books — as if she’s been raised by wolves and knows only the laws of the jungle. It’s amazing how she bounces back from some of the things that happen to her in the book, and how adamant she is about standing up for herself and other women.

The effect that Blomkvist’s article had on his nemesis was especially thrilling to read as well, especially if you also work in the same industry. It’s any writer’s dream after all — to see their story become bigger than they are and actually see it change something.

It was also interesting to see Blomkvist grapple with the ethical dilemmas brought about by his investigation, especially as it relates to his job as a journalist. It’s refreshing to read a crime novel that looks beyond just the capture or death of the killer and ruminates on the victims and their families.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. I thought it was stretching things a little bit to have Blomkvist have as active a sex life as he did, as much as it introduced a red herring into the story. And maybe it’s just the translation, but I felt the prose was a little on the “basic” side, if that makes any sense.

However, all those little things did not detract from my enjoyment of the story at all, and hasn’t discouraged me from reading the other two books in the trilogy. it’s easy to see why so many people have been recommending this book to me — and it’s doubly easier to slap myself up the head for not picking it up immediately.

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