REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

girl-dragon-tattooAuthor: Stieg Larsson

Translated by: Reg Keeland

Knopf, 2008

Best ebook deal: Public Library

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 2
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 4

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fairly straightforward mystery novel. Mikael Blomqvist is a financial reporter whose life is falling apart when he gets tapped by Henrik Vanger, a wealthy retired captain of industry, to solve the 40-year-old murder of Vanger’s grandniece.

This novel has gotten a whole lot of buzz in the past few months, and it is, for the most part, a page-turner. But lower your expectations. Larsson’s prose is awkward, his style is overly plodding, and his characters are largely uninteresting, and the whole first half is plainly boring.

The second half of the book is, as advertised, a pretty compelling  plot-driven detective story, perhaps slightly more compelling than your average paperback mystery. It’s definitely readable, and definitely worth reading. Just be prepared to wade through a dry first 200 pages, and don’t expect the best mystery novel you’ve ever read.

I’m not entirely sure how much blame to lay at the feet of Larsson’s translator. The prose is uniformly bland, with large patches of downright badness, and I have a feeling Keeland didn’t help matters in that area. However, the structure of the novel is similarly ill-conceived, which makes me think that Larsson is in fact more the culprit.

While the story itself is interesting, we’re often dragged through the minutiae of Blomqvist’s investigation, such as:

The family consisted of about a hundred individuals, counting all the children of cousins and second cousins. The family was so extensive that he was forced to create a database in his iBook. He used the NotePad programme (www.ibrium.se), one of those full-value products that two men at the Royal Technical College had created and distributed as shareware for a pittance on the Internet. Few programmes were as useful for an investigative journalist. Each family member was given his or her own document in the database.

Just as often, characters will have stilted, protracted conversations in which they lay out for each other the details of the case (which is quite a bit simpler than Larsson’s exhaustive play-by-play implies). Beyond being bad dialogue, these conversations contribute to the novel’s sluggish pace.

Larsson spends a full hundred pages before the premise has been drawn out of Blomqvist’s employer, and a full two hundred before Blomqvist and our other hero—the eponymous tattooed girl, Lisbeth Salander—meet up and begin to work together, which is when the narrative finally starts to click.

Those two heroes are the heart of the novel’s humanity, and pretty much the only two who aren’t cardboard cutouts (OK, Salander is the only non-cutout). Most ancillary characters are either featureless blobs, or their personalities take wild swings in order to conform to the twists of Larsson’s plot. Larsson’s attempts at emotional complexity are hamfisted at best, and cringe-inducing at worst.

Partially, I blame this on Larsson’s political agenda. The brief author’s note mentions that Larsson was “A leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations,” and he clearly has a personal axe to grind with Nazis and with abusers of women.

That’s well and good to a certain extent—it provides some fire in the belly of this novel, and an authentic first-hand feel—but an overwhelming agenda also tends to destroy artistic nuance, realistic complexity, and any sense that the narrative should entertain the reader. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into more detail; suffice to say that Larsson’s agenda hurts his novel.

Oddly, in the midst of Larsson’s anti-Nazi agenda, he also seems driven to sell Apple computers. “iBook”s are ubiquitous tools of investigation, and characters sometimes almost sneer at the poor souls using PCs. It gets particularly tiresome when Larson spends two full pages extolling the virtues of a new Apple, culminating in this:

Best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything else on the market.

Ultimately, this leave-no-detail-behind style bogs down what could have been a thrill ride. If Girl was 250 pages instead of 475, it might’ve had a shot at being a great paperback mystery. As it is, this novel is a well-plotted but excruciating read that somehow got way too much press for its own good.

Similar reading: Andrew Vachss is an attorney who specializes in child advocacy. He writes a series of novels about a detective named Burke that have a similarly political edge and similarly first-hand feel. Vachss’s novels also have a much more entertaining style. Plus, Vachss is hands down the all-time champion in the badass author photo contest.

23 comments to REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  • Martyn Osman

    Ok, fair comments.

  • Kris Haggblom

    I finally broke down with all the hype and read this. Your review is dead on. A better idea than the DaVinci code (and, even though a somewhat flat, stilted translation, better written), but still not worth the flap. I found myself lazily skipping ahead, not losing a thing. An enjoyable waste of time. I won’t be picking up the other two titles.

    • Hi Kris.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yeah, I’ve seen some reviews/previews of his new one that fully acknowledge that there are dozens of pages’ worth of meaningless details throughout his books. I just don’t understand the appeal of that. He could’ve been great with a decent editor. Shame…

  • Mike Housman

    I don’t agree, I quite enjoyed the minutiae of detail . It gives the sense of being in a world that I can explore with my own imagination. I find the 2-dimensional nature of much contemporary fiction so irritating I just don’t bother with it any more. These books are something I can really get my teeth into and I like the fact that that Larsson doesn’t do the kind of show-offy prose that for me can get in the way of the narrative or characters.

    I also very much appreciated the slow burn build up of the first part of the book.

    Regarding the Applephilia, that is a bit dated now but given that they were written before Ubuntu and the like were as widely available as they are now it is understandable.

    This book has a kind of organic feel for me, it seems to come from some deep roots in Larsson’s beliefs and world view, it was clearly not meant to be a “thrill ride” and to criticise it for not being one is to completely miss the point of it, a bit like criticising a Volvo for not being an Aston Martin.

    I’m sorry but this review comes across as a pissed off author sniping at the competition.

    • Mike Housman

      Apologies for the last sentence I misread the last paragraph. Shouldn’t post when I’m this tired.

      • Hi Mike,
        I agree with you that too many mysteries and genre novels are 2-dimensional, but almost all of Larsson’s characters are 2-dimensional, too, except Salander. I don’t think he’s the antidote to 2-dimensionality.

        And you’re right: people looking for day-to-day minutiae and not a thrill ride will have a better chance of liking this book. I prefer faster-paced novels.

        Thanks for your thoughts.

  • I do not agree at all with your review. I mean if you like the vapid thrillers churned out by those writing under the James Patterson byline then you might find this book a little off putting. I don’t think that the characters are two dimensional at all – in fact I feel that they are all well rounded and become very real to the readers. In fact all three of the Millenium Trilogy are nothing short of excellent

    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Patterson’s definitely worse than Larsson, I’ll give you that. But that doesn’t mean Larsson’s characters are three-dimensional. I think Blomkvist is extraordinarily bland, especially for a main character. But to each his own.

  • erin

    Amazingly accurate synopsis! But strangely I still find myself compelled to continue reading….there is something within the drabness that has hooked me. Am I falsely anticipating some excitement?

  • jd Dallas

    I read (and enjoyed) the trilogy. Each of the three books has its own style. I find myself reading and re-reading each of the works. I don’t understand the comment about 2-dimensional characters. As with most books, the peripheral characters here are not developed. You have already commented adversely on the length of this book; if the (minor) players were developed further the book would necessarily have been longer. There are minute areas where I have noticed errors or rather passages which might have been translated differently. But both the author and the translator have done an admirable job. Their recognition is well-earned.

    • Hi JD,

      You have every right to disagree with me, and to like these books. I think they had a lot of promise, but it makes perfect sense that Larsson died before he could revise them—they’re rough drafts.

      Also, fleshing out chracters does not require more words. In fact, a few of the very minor characters—crimes scene techs, etc.—were actually more vivid than Blomkvist or Erika, because Larsson takes risks with those characters that he won’t with his cherished (self-modeled) protagonist. Larsson wanted his good guys to be nearly without flaw, and as a result, they became very very bland.

      In any case, thanks for stopping by and thanks for leaving your thoughts.

  • Mike Powers

    Hi, I’ve read the first two books and I find myself in agreement with most of your assessment. I tried to get into all that mind-numbing detail but I found it just slowed the pace and confused me as I didn’t know how much significance to give them.
    I must agree that the Blomkvist character hardly jumped off the page and was really no more than a cipher. I was far more intrigued by the Salander character and couldn’t really by into their relationship.
    It didn’t help that the dialogue for all characters was in the same style
    Despite all this is was an oddly compelling read
    Your criticism helped to clarify my feelings about the book

  • Calvin

    Thanks for the review, you vilified by feelings exactly. Not sure if I’m going to move onto the other two if they have they have the same sort of dialogue.

    However, I may give “The Secret In Their Eyes” a try. I’ll read it first before moving onto the movie.

    Thanks again

  • Jayanta Kurukulasuriya

    Having read a review in the SriLankan newspapers which advised me that “Tatoo sucks you in after the first few pages..”, I was wondering what I’d missed at page 188 of boring prose.I’ll take your advice and plod on, hoping the latter part of this book lives up to the hype. So far I agree that “Larsson’s prose is awkward, his style is overly plodding”.

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