Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Reviewed by Mary Sue Daoud, 12/30/11

Corporate espionage, libel gone wrong, sociopathic heroines with a penchant for hacking…and two villains so heinously evil and insane that they take on the exaggerated feeling of caricatures—that is the bulk of Stieg Larsson’s first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage Crime, 2008).

          With all the hype surrounding the series and the movies, I ordered the book from the library and settled in. I had hoped it would be an intriguing read and a pleasant way to while away an evening.

          The book opened intriguingly enough. Journalist and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist was just sentenced for libel against bigtime financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Found guilty, he was given a whopping fine that cleared him out and took with it quite a bit of the magazine. Burned out, he left on a leave of absence in order to take a break, do his jail time, and write the family history another bigtime CEO and patriarch, Henrik Vanger, hired him to do, mainly as a cover for the main reason Vanger hired Blomkvist: to take one more go at the mystery that had dominated Vanger’s life—the forty-year-old case of Vanger’s missing niece. In exchange, Vanger would give him the information and evidence Blomkvist would need to take Wennerstrom down.

          Just as in any big family, there are lots of interesting characters and subplots whose stories thicken and enhance the plot as Blomkvist uncovers their stories and motivations and dialogues with them. To help him along, Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, a troubled and abused punk with a gift for research in the way of massive hacking. Together, they uncover the horrible skeletons in the Vanger family closet—graphic, violent beyond description, involving rape, incest, kidnapping, torture, murder (several actually), and a variety of other obscenities.

          It’s at the climax, when Blomkvist is in the heinous clutches of the villain, that the reader realizes that the plot has suddenly taken an extremely ridiculous twist. Such villains are far more suited to horror stories than this pseudo-realistic mystery story. Never mind that Larsson felt driven to think about and write up such dark characters—what possessed him to write a story with such believable, complex characters like Blomkvist and Salander, then saddle it with such grotesque villains? What could have been a fairly good story lost its unity and turned into a lumpy, uneven, out of proportion story with all the steam gone out of it.

          Does evil have to be so grotesque for us to realize, Oh look, that is, without a doubt, evil? What about the things the other characters do—things that are morally questionable and, in some cases, remarkably stupid, like Blomkvist having three affairs through the course of the book, one of which was a longstanding one with a married woman (and the husband knows about it and is totally fine with it.) Why is this book so popular?

          The book ends relatively happily, with the loose ends more or less tied up, and the mysteries satisfactorily solved. It could have been a believable book, too, if the antagonist’s story had matched in tone and in context. But with such disproportionate evil, the story has the feeling of being written around the antagonist, and the rest just window dressing to set him off. As he wrote two other books based on Blomkvist and Salander, that was obviously not intended.

          I don’t think I’ll be spending more time with Larsson’s stories—where is my Eliot?!

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