Book Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

B-

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publication Info: Vintage 2009
ISBN: 0307454541
Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Book Cover Every now and again I take a break from romance reading. Sometimes it’s to scour my brain and take a break from tropes that seem over familiar or frustrations that seem perennial. Sometimes it’s because I love good mystery novels, though I don’t often review them here, and I crave the puzzle and change of pace that good mystery provides. And sometimes I’m curious about a book that I hear mentioned over and over.

If I hear about a book from different people in completely different contexts, it catches my attention because most of the time, the different groups of people I know don’t overlap much. If I hear about the same book in multiple venues, like on Twitter, via email, on my personal Facebook, and in person, I take a good look at it. So it was with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I was craving a break from romance, and this book presented itself to me multiple times.

I don’t usually go for books that have a lot of hype behind them. It took a very good friend saying to me, “No, really, ignore all that crap and read it” before I picked up The DaVinci Code. But the personal recommendations of people who don’t normally interact in the network that is my life made me download a sample, then buy the book outright.

I don’t think I need to tell you it’s not a romance, do I? It’s really not a romance.

I don’t even know if I can accurately summarize the plot without giving away too much, but I’ll give it a shot. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired to write a family history for elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger – in exchange for information Blomkvist needs to clear his name. But Blomkvist finds out from Vanger that his real assignment is to find out what happened to Vanger’s niece, Harriet, who disappeared when she was 16. When Blomkvist connects with researcher Lisbeth Salander by accident, the two find new information, and reveal long-hidden secrets while antagonizing the people trying to keep them.

Blomkvist and Salander start out as distant stars in each other’s orbit – and more than once I wondered how, or if, they’d ever really team up. But once they do, it’s powerful.

The biggest flaws I had with Larsson’s writing were the repetitive nature of tiny details – if you see a mention of a beer, an open faced sandwich, a character walking somewhere to buy dinner, or a product manufactured by Apple, DRINK and DRINK HARD because it’ll numb the pain of so much detailed redundancy! If someone mentions snow, though, just shrug, because it’s Sweden and they have some of it up there.

The other problem was the uneven portrayal of character emotion. There are nuances to so many characters that reveal them slowly, and Larssen has some moments of exquisite and painfully precise writing that left me breathless. And then, more than once, two people will bump uglies after a leadup that might as well have been Dave Barry’s dialogue: “Male, this is female. I wish to have sex relations with you.” People meet and start boinking with all the forethought one might use to sneeze – as if they can’t help themselves from aligning body parts for maximum friction. I mean, holy crap, the complete absence of slow-built sexual tension was jarring, especially when contrasted with the slow build of violent tension.

But then, this is a book that’s very much about violence and power, particularly against women, which can make it very difficult to read.

It’s also about a terribly smart, horrifically brilliant woman, who is both the predator and the victim. Salander is enormously powerful in her intellect, but powerless socially and legally, as she discovers upon meeting her new legal guardian. She’s a ward of the state, so to speak, though I’m sure the terms are different in Sweden, and it is up to her guardian how much autonomy she has.

But her intellect and her connections, both literal and virtual, coupled with a moral code that allows her to retaliate in kind to anyone who hurts or helps her, make her sneaky powerful. One might think her actions in the story point to a lack of morality, but really, her moral and ethical compass is very much present. It just doesn’t swing. There’s no grey area with Salander, except for the things she doesn’t concern herself with at all – and therefore doesn’t care about. Salander has no hesitation in acting once she’s determined the best strategy, and, because she’s been taught so much about choosing the “appropriate” and “right” behavior (which aren’t always the same thing), she has no patience with anyone who attempts to excuse their choices.

Salander’s eyes blazed with fury. Blomkvist quickly went on.

“I’m only saying that I think a person’s upbringing does play a role.”

“Bullshit,” Salander said again…. “I just think it’s pathetic that creeps always have to have someone else to blame.”

In Salander’s world, you are responsible entirely for your own actions, because she is held entirely responsible for hers, even when she isn’t at all responsible for the circumstances that have precipitated her choices. That’s irrelevant to her way of thinking. There is no buck to be passed with Salander, and if there were, she wouldn’t let go of it long enough for it to ulimately stop with her. Responsibility always rests on the individual, and chillingly, she accepts responsibility in full for all of her actions – which makes her one scary badass motherfucker.

As a character, Salander is fascinating, and I’d keep reading the series just to follow her, as painful and horrific and inspiring and amazing as her story was. As a character, she’s stunning: the awkward, socially uncomfortable techy geek girl who kicks ass and knows why your parents chose your name because her info-digging skills are that good. She kick ass, and regardless of how painful it is, I couldn’t stop watching her. I lost patience with Blomkvist more than once, and grew tired of scenes where he wasn’t with Salander – and wanted to toss him over a balcony railing more than a few times – but I couldn’t stop reading about Lisbeth. She is, like the title suggests, the center of the book.

The biggest let-down of the book for me, though, was the ending. Truly believable, if not a little kooky, people populate the novel, until the end when villain-by-hyperbole takes over. It may be second place to the dissatisfaction I find in a deus-ex-machina ending – the villain-by-hyperbole ending where there isn’t much this horrible person hasn’t done or will do on the next page.

Yet despite that, I couldn’t stop reading. The glue-fulness of the text is not to be underestimated. Once I picked up the book, especially once it gets going at holycrapwarpspeed in the middle, and especially after I met Salander, it was very difficult to put it down. I’m not sure to what I should attribute the addictiveness of the read. As much as it made me flinch and want to stop reading and look away, I couldn’t. Salander is both a hero and an antihero, with both a rigid and somehow fluid morality that was fascinating.


So here’s the cool part: I was contacted about the book after I’d started reading it to ask if I’d participate in a campaign to spread the word about the movie, the book, and (most importantly) the subject matter within it. Julie from WritingRoads and Music Box Films have masterminded a blog scavenger hunt, and this is one stop on the trail to win free movie tickets and other prizes.

Standard disclaimers apply – i.e. I’m not compensated for this promotion, yadda yadda, and I paid for my copy of the book. Do not remove this tag under penalty of law. Please curb your dog.

What I found absolutely awesomesauce was that Julie and Music Box Films put together a collection of websites (and no, I’m not going to tell you which ones – that’d ruin the scavenger part!) that focus not only on the characters and the plot, but on the issues and problems dealt with in the film. I think it’s a way cool method of spreading the word about a book and a film, and also about topics that don’t get mentioned nearly enough.

From Julie, the official blurb for the contest:

Join the Dragon Tattoo Blog HUNT – an internet wide scavenger hunt tied to the feature film launch of bestselling book The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Win great prizes – free movie tickets, books, movie soundtrack, posters and more. To join the contest, start at the beginning of the HUNT by visiting http://www.dragontattoofilm.com/contest for full details and the first clue. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is in theaters near you starting March 19th.

THE FINAL CLUE:

For the final clue in the Dragon Tattoo Blog Hunt, click here.

Happy hunting – and if you win something, please let me know!

The book The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is available for purchase at Amazon.com, IndieBound, Book Depository, Powell’s, and Audible.com.

The film based on the book opens in the US on 19 March. No word on where you can purchase that yet!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jody says:

    YAYs to SBTB for reviewing this!  Sarah, your observations are dead on, but I would have given it higher than a B- just for its sheer can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough quality.  Perhaps the repetition and sneeze-boinking issues are language things, though on the whole, the translation is brilliant.

    I’m sure I don’t have to suggest The Girl Who Played With Fire to you.  If anything, it’s better, though in addition to sandwiches and Apple computers, some of it reads like an IKEA catalog.

    I’ve been sitting on my hands, endlessly repeating “Patience is a virtue” to stop myself from ordering The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest from the UK.

  2. 2

    Great review Sarah. I’m a dork & totally confused this with a paranormaly type movie preview I saw. At first I was disappointed that this wasn’t a paranormal until I read your review. I’m intrigued by Salander and absolutely love a kick ass female protaganist. This book is sitting on my kindle thingy so as soon as things slow down I’ll be bumping this to the top of my TBR.

  3. 3
    Venetia says:

    Heh. I’ve been seeing these books around for a while but somehow never seriously considered them. However my mother and I now have the first two because Mum’s American best friend and her daughter just finished the first two books and are so desperate to read the third, we just bought all three and posted the third from Australia and kept 1 & 2 for ourselves! And as of now, with their rec and your review, I’m getting very interested in reading them.

    But we’re both a bit wary about starting them right now because we’re rather busy at the moment and these books seem to suck you in completely. No breaks allowed!

  4. 4
    Evamaria says:

    It’s so weird how suddenly something keeps popping up – only a couple of days ago I downloaded the audiobook of this on a complete whim… You’ve definitely made me want to go back to listening so I can meet Lisbeth!

  5. 5
    Beki says:

    I’ve seen another review of this same book only this morning and all I can say is, I’m won over.  Though it doesn’t sound like what I’d normally like, the sheer number of people jumping up and down and happy about these books makes me take a chance on them. 

    Thanks for a great review!

  6. 6
    judy says:

    Good review, but personally I’d give it an A-.  While the first almost 100 pages might lead to a bit of confusion and waiting to see how all the storylines would meld – once they did it was awesome!!  Can’t wait to read the next one.

  7. 7
    votermom says:

    I’ve been curious about this book but worried that it might be depressing. Is it depressing?

  8. 8
    RebeccaA says:

    Okay I’m a bit confused.  My parents saw this movie a month ago in New Zealand.  But I think Mom said it was subtitled.  I think there was a European version and now a new Hollywod version.

  9. 9
    votermom says:

    RebeccaA, I think the film is Swedish, also titled “Men Who Hate Women”. I don’t know if the USA release will be subtitled or dubbed.
    The Hollywood version is just a rumor at this point.

  10. 10
    Tien says:

    Agree with the review.  I would give it a B though.  The book was definitely a page turner and lisbeth was the best part of the novel.  but the violence against women got a bit gratuitous and off-putting. (i suppose the author wanted us to feel her pain and vengence.) still, i couldn’t put it down b/c i wanted to see where our heroine ended up…  alas – go read the second and third installments

  11. 11
    Phina says:

    Some of the problem with the book is that it’s a translation from Swedish.  The original book isn’t quite so bad with the stumbling prose. I’ve seen the film and it’s really quite a good although I did like the book better.  I’d really recommend books 2 and 3 in the trilogy because they are even more about Lisbeth.  Overall, I agree with the commentor upthread who would have given it an A-

  12. 12
    darlynne says:

    … her moral and ethical compass is very much present. It just doesn’t swing.

    I think you nailed it with that description, SB Sara.

    I agree with judy above about a higher grade and the first 100 pages. This trilogy is outstanding, particularly in light of the late author’s work in the area of violence against women. IIRC, the Swedish title for this book is “Men Who Hate Women.” (Mikael Blomkvist, as a man who loves women, is a welcome counterpoint to that, for all the bed-hopping.)

    I listened to and read the first two books, and purchased the UK edition of the third a few months ago because I couldn’t wait until May for Hornets’ Nest.

    Salander is the most fascinating and complicated character I have ever encountered. She is every one of us who has ever been vulnerable, who arms herself and fights back with intelligence and unwavering determination. Her journey through all three books is brutal, but ultimately satisfying, particularly as she matures emotionally. The skills she possesses are cerebral rather than physical, and the more believable for that.

    These are not easy reads nor should they be; they are, however, riveting as both social commentary and crime novel.

  13. 13
    cmd says:

    Definitely agree with the review, but having read the entire trilogy and viewing this book in the context of the whole story, I’d rate it higher.
    Considering that this book was supposed to be the first in a long series (something like 10 books or so) featuring Salander and Blomkvist (cut short, of course, by Larsson’s untimely death), it is [somewhat] understandable for it to have so much exposition. Yes, it often strays too far into the realm of somewhat unnecessary minutiae, but part of the point of the whole thing is to showcase ‘ordinary’ people confronting ‘ordinary’ issues of great societal import that are often glossed over—and ordinary people do ordinary things like consume a lot of open-faced sandwiches (insanely popular in Scandinavia) and use Apple products :)

    The next two books are much more fast-moving, with big events/revelations happing much more frequently. The third/final book—“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”—is a real page-turner and does a really good job of tying together Lisbeth’s story arc. It’s also a fantastic legal & social commentary on Sweden in particular and Europe, to a lesser degree, in general. I definitely recommend that you finish out the trilogy.

    Being a European transplant to the US, I’ve seen the first film in Swedish with Spanish subtitles—it came out about a year ago—and bits of the second. The film is a great adaptation of the book, and cuts out all those unnecessary open-faced sandwiches :). Definitely very excited to see it making its way Stateside—hopefully unchanged! Save for, you know, some English subtitles. The rumoured Hollywood remake I’m less keen on…

  14. 14
    Obskuretris says:

    Even though I think your review is dead on, I would rate it higher than a B-. Yes the endless Apple love was a bit much (not hating, I own an ibook) but I put that down to 1st time writer flaws. Salander was the best part of the books for me. Her presence livened some truly uninteresting scenes and I probably grinned like a mad person whenever I read a scene or chapter with her. Yes, to wanting to look away at some parts. I shudder whenever I think about her guardian. You have to read the Girl Who Played with Fire, Sarah, which features even more of Salander.

  15. 15
    Katie says:

    I agree with those above who said that the sheer magnetism of the story should merit a higher grade.  Which is weird, because I had to struggle just to get to the middle of Dragon Tattoo, because of the (at times) excruciatingly slow pace.  It’s like the first half is all uphill, and the second half is all downhill, snowballing adrenaline. 

    I do think the characters can be a bit paper-dollish at times.  I always think of this as the Ayn Rand problem – the good guys are the best at what they do, extraordinary, and uncompromising in the face of normal foibles and social mores.  The bad guys are weasels and petty, hypocritical worms, and it can get a little cartoonish. However, I think Larsson really develops the characters well over the course of the three books, and escapes the mustache-twirling stereotype in the later books, where the villain is more faceless government bureaucracy, rather than any one individual.

    I even got into the swing of the writing more as the book went on – it’s certainly very stylized and detailed, but I looked on it more as adding anticipation to the finale, rather than distracting from the story.  The story is so compelling, and really remarkable not only for the protagonists, but also for the sharp commentary on government institutions and society’s casual sexism. 

    And for those who are worried about it being depressing – a lot of terrible things happen to women (and some men, to a different extent) in the books, but the overall theme is of justice for wrongs done, so I wouldn’t call the series depressing, although it is extremely dark.

  16. 16
    Mama Nice says:

    I knew you were reading this, but didn’t expect a review to pop up here at the SB’s…bonus points! And I had no clue a movie was coming out, so you have already done your part to spread the word (as it were).
    I was fascinated by Lisbeth as well, and bored and a bit put off by B.
    I too felt the writing was rather repetitive and tedious at times…I wonder is it perhaps that the author died and there was never a chance for an editor/author relationship to develop? IMO it’s a lot harder wield the red pen of death with force when the writer isn’t around to discuss the edits.
    Glad to hear the next 2 in the series move faster – I plan to read them this summer!

  17. 17
    Cathy says:

    Just wanted to point out that you spelled Larsson wrong in the post’s title.

  18. 18
    Laura (in PA) says:

    I was surprised and pleased to see you review this book. I, too, tend to shy away from books that are reviewed and talked about everywhere, but I heard enough good things about this one to give it a try. I was glad I did. I had a hard time getting into it, but once I did I couldn’t put it down.

    I’m trying to get my hands on the 2nd book, and hope to read all three. My first feeling on finishing the first book was sadness that the author was gone.

  19. 19
    Christina says:

    Have to add my voice to the others saying that the drive of the books gives them their force … Larsson’s writing is by no means poetic or descriptive or even atmospheric at all (which for a Scandinavian crime thriller, is unusual in the light of people like Henning Mankell and Karin Alvtegen) … but the story is a complete textbook definition page turner.

    And as you say, the true genius creation of the books is Lisbeth Salander, who seems to gain a life of her own and come right off the page. (Blomquist is pretty much an author stand-in I think). But the unabashed, powerful moral outrage the book has against those who are exploitative (financially, violently, sexually) is a great thing to behold, and carries you right along.

    The original title for me is more powerful – “The Men Who Hated Women” (which is also its title in nearly every translation – Spanish, French, Italian, German) – and it’s disheartening that the English language publishers seem to have thought this offputting, and gone for “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo” which while putting Salander centre, is also a very superficial image.

    Also, I just have to say, this book actually made me grateful, so pathetically grateful, that it is a book written by a man, which rails so unabashedly against injustices against women. It’s so heartening, when feminist causes, women’s causes, like the rape debate, so often put some men on the defensive: men who wouldn’t ever DO something like that, but still feel that an attack on any group of men is indirectly an attack on all men. I don’t understand why: when people criticise homophobia, I don’t feel defensive as a straight person, for example. Larsson, by taking such a stand in his book, shows that it’s not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue, but just an issue, a moral issue that anyone should be outraged at, same as we are outraged at Wennerstrom’s financial exploitation.

    It’s a shame poor Larsson never got to see this success, or live to write any more. They are one of the most addictive reading experiences I’ve ever had. Check the films out if you can as well, they’re not bad – Salander is quite well played. The third one has just come out here in Spain and I’m very excited to go see it as soon as poss!) =)

  20. 20
    Katie says:

    Christina, or anyone else who can answer this, do you know what the original titles of the second and third book were?  Because it sort of seems to me that “The Men Who Hated Women” could be the title of any of them, or all three together, especially since that phrase is repeated more often in the later two books, I thought.  Perhaps that was why the original first title was changed, and to give the whole set more cohesiveness, rather than fear of being off-putting.

  21. 21

    Usually I don’t like remakes, but I’m glad they’re remaking the movie. I know the book was made into a Swedish movie and well, the movie was really bad lol

  22. 22
    Tessa says:

    I’m having a hard time remembering the first one distinctly, but I’d give the trilogy at least a B+. (I consumed the first in one long weekend of ignoring my children and husband, then badgered a British friend to send the rest as soon as they were out.) 

    I loved loved loved Lisabeth better than any kick-ass heroine in a long time, maybe ever, and grew rather fond of Blomkvist by the end. I liked the slices of Swedish life offered, product names, open sandwiches and all, though everyone’s comments about the writing are true. 

    I’m having a hard time thinking of any book or series that sucked me in and gave me so much to think about while leaving me so little time to think.  They are the crack. 

    I wish Larsson had lived to write more, and I wish his heirs (father and brother) were honorable enough to share the tremendous windfall of the books’ success with Larsson’s partner of many years. Clearly the man wasn’t a peach to live with, and it sounds like she tolerated/supported him a lot.  Given the Larsson’s work and his perspective as movingly portrayed in the books, you know he would have wanted that.  (Lesson: if you’re going to be a heavy smoker with a bad diet and high stress, make sure you have an updated will.)

    Nonetheless, I loved the books and am jealous of those of you about to read them the first time.

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    @Cathy – OOPS. Thank you!

  24. 24
    Wendy says:

    I read the second book in this series (The Girl Who Played with Fire) and was really disappointed. The two main characters were interesting but I couldn’t get past the clunkiness, the flat dialogue, and the (what felt like) endless descriptions of doing laundry. I had wondered if I should have started with the first, but it sounds like the same flaws I found to be deal-breakers in the second are present in the first anyway.

  25. 25
    Thalia says:

    I liked the book a fair bit too, B.  The chilling statistics and repeated references to violence against women were a bit depressing.  But Salander was totally awesome.

    And I give the book a +1 for not having the happy ending where the main male character completely changes his personality so that everything can be tied up with a neat bow.

  26. 26
    darlynne says:

    Wendy, the setup for the entire trilogy was in the first book, so I’m sorry you started with the second. I can’t tell you that you won’t find the same flaws, but, for me, it was once in and I was hooked.

  27. 27
    Anu says:

    @Katie: The original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is actually Men who hate women (Män som hatar kvinnor), not hated. The second book is called Flickan som lekte med elden, The Girl Who Played with Fire, so the title is the same. The third book is called Luftslottet som sprängdes, “The air castle which exploded” (translation taken from Wikipedia), and basically, the air castle means what “castle in Spain” in English means, a daydream, something that is not reality, or a pipe dream. I suppose it refers to some part of the Swedish society that is questioned in the third book where Lisbeth and Mikael uncover some ugly things about certain Swedish institutions.

  28. 28
    Wendy says:

    Darlynne, I did wonder if I’d ruined it for myself by starting with the second, but given that I did truly like Lisbeth and Mikael and was still too frustrated with the writing and the way the story unfolded to enjoy the story (and normally characters trump every other factor for me), I thought it best to cut my losses on the trilogy. So many books out there, so little time…

    I’ve had the same problem with writers from Sweden and Norway before; perhaps it’s the way it’s translated.

  29. 29
    SusiB says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I saw the movie last year and I found it really breathtakingly gripping and suspenseful. There’s a lot of violence, though. And if you go to see it, my advice would be to go to the toilet before sitting down in the theater. It is a very long movie.

  30. 30
    Bonnie Riley says:

    The biggest flaws I had with Larsson’s writing were the repetitive nature of tiny details – if you see a mention of a beer, an open faced sandwich, a character walking somewhere to buy dinner, or a product manufactured by Apple, DRINK and DRINK HARD because it’ll numb the pain of so much detailed redundancy! If someone mentions snow, though, just shrug, because it’s Sweden and they have some of it up there.

    The other problem was the uneven portrayal of character emotion. There are nuances to so many characters that reveal them slowly, and Larssen has some moments of exquisite and painfully precise writing that left me breathless. And then, more than once, two people will bump uglies after a leadup that might as well have been Dave Barry’s dialogue: “Male, this is female. I wish to have sex relations with you.” People meet and start boinking with all the forethought one might use to sneeze – as if they can’t help themselves from aligning body parts for maximum friction. I mean, holy crap, the complete absence of slow-built sexual tension was jarring, especially when contrasted with the slow build of violent tension.

    I love these books and cannot wait for number three.  I think the open-faced sandwich thing is funny, because I’ve already told more people than want to listen how reading a mystery set in, say, Shanghai makes me hungry, as every other scene seems to involve garlic-fried chicken or crab noodles or something, and when I read a Henning Mankell, for instance, no hunger occurs (coffee, sandwiches, and “he opened a can of sausages and ate his supper”).

    As for the sex, I think that is to some extent a realistic portrayal of the characters.  Mikael, admittedly something of a (male) slut, expects sex to come to him, and it does.  Lisbeth, on the other hand, is, despite her genius, socially a bit of a misfit (for good reasons as you learn more about in book 2), and she DOES NOT act like a normal person. 

    For me it was at least an A-.

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