Author: Stieg Larsson
Translated by: Reg Keeland
Best ebook deal: Public Library
|C4 Ratings.....out of||10|
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.