Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: A Mystery in the Middle

It's pretty hard to read such a popular, massively hyped novel without a sense of cynicism. You think, "Everyone raves about this book, so if I can just find a few reasons not to like it, I can position myself above the fray. I'll be cool and disaffected. People will love me!" Subconsciously, I must've been thinking something similar to that (or, more likely, exactly that) when I finally caved and picked up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Sadly for me, Stieg ruined my plan. I liked the novel — not an overwhelming-gush-until-I'm-blue-in-the-face amount, but enough that I'd certainly recommend it. And I'm excited to tackle the other two books in the series. (From here on contains SPOILERS. If you haven't read the novel, stop reading this post. Go read the novel, and come back and finish reading this post.) I liked it for many of the reasons it's become so popular — fascinatingly original characters; a shocking, gruesome, smart mystery; and a breakneck pace (at times). But since you've all read the novel, and already know what a bad-ass Lisbeth is and how gruesome the secret she and Mikael discover turns out to be, I want to look at another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed.

Let me explain: Ask anyone what they think of the novel, and invariably you'll get some form of "It started really slowly." It does. No denying that. The long description of the financial minutiae involved in Mikael's libel trial is pretty dull. Not a good way to get readers excited about what's to come. You know what would've been cool? If Larsson had told us the story of Harriet's disappearance as the prologue in a stand-alone scene. That would've possibly made readers more willing to forgive the first 100 pages of boredom. (And an in-scene 1966 prologue would've avoided the long, dull scene where Henrik tells Mikael the story of Harriet's disappearance. Advancing plot with dialogue shatters a rather ironclad Creative Writing 101 rule, doesn't it?)

But so after we get through the scene-setting and character-building, we spend the next 300 or so pages speeding through Mikael and Lisbeth's quest to find out what happened to Harriet — which is obviously the novel's strength and what most readers (me included) enjoy most. Then we end with 75 pages or so that wraps up the loose ends of the Wennerstrom affair, which is essentially where the novel began. The Harriet Vanger mystery is actually the rich, creamy center of the softer shell story of Mikael's journalistic revenge.

The effect of the mystery-wrapped-in-the-mundane structure is that the mystery itself stands out even more starkly. In other words, a mystery involving rape, incest and a decades-long serial killer, solved by a disgraced financial reporter and his much-younger, damaged-but-brilliant partner/lover seems even more shocking and interesting than it would have anyway. But beyond that, and here's where I'll probably depart from many readers' opinions, I actually enjoyed the last pages. I loved the juxtaposition between the wrap-up of the murder mystery and the wrap-up of Mikael's professional redemption. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I'm a magazine editor myself, and writing such a once-in-a-lifetime investigative piece is every journalist's dream. Or perhaps I'm grasping at straws. But when the mystery ended and Lisbeth revealed that she had a bunch of dirt on Wennerstrom, I was thrilled that Larsson would allow Blomqvist the opportunity to exact his revenge, and to do so by the very method that got him in trouble in the first place: A piece of writing!

So, yeah, I liked the book. No, it's not perfect by a long shot. Remember when Mikael gets shot at, but then returns to his cottage and just stays there? That seemed like a poor choice. That's just one of several plot points that sort of stretched credulity. So, overall, I'd give it four stars.

Gimme your thoughts. What'd you like about it? What didn't you like?

(Also, I just got the Swedish version of the movie in the mail — anyone seen it?)


  1. I definitely agree with you. I liked the book a lot but, like you... " not an overwhelming-gush-until-I'm-blue-in-the-face amount, but enough that I'd certainly recommend it".
    But, unlike you... I liked the entire mystery of Harriet's disappearance. I liked how it was presented. Although, pretty early on, I knew who was sending the flowers.
    I saw the Swedish version and it's very good. Even though it's close to 2 1/2 hours, there is so much that they chose to leave out. You could still "enjoy" it having not read the novel, but I think it really helped.

    The actress you showed in your post was not quite how I imagined her but she was amazing!!
    As horrific as that scene is with Lisbeth (I'm sure you know to which I'm referring), it was so much worse seeing on film.

  2. I've seen the movie, too, and I don't think you'll be disappointed. I thought it was excellent and pretty faithful to the book. I wrote about it here, if you're interested.

  3. I like how complicated the mystery is...even the financial stuff contributes to the sense that the plot encompasses a vast web of relationships and that it keeps growing as the connections between them are revealed.

    I haven't seen any of the movies, and don't plan to; I don't need to see the horrific scenes.

  4. I agree with you about the slow start(something I also found with The Corrections,btw),which is probably why I took so long to go back to the book after putting it down. Once you get over that hurdle,the pedal is definitely to the metal.

    Also love Lisbeth's amazing hacker abilities(especially since my computer skills are nowhere near that savvy)and yes,her providing Mikael with the goods to get journalistic payback was a smart and realistic storytelling move.

    I've seen the Swedish version of the first book(don't intend to watch the other movies before I read those books)and it's excellent. From what I have heard about the upcoming Hollywood version,this is the one that fans of the book will prefer.

  5. First, I've seen all the movies, and generally they kick ass. I was slightly annoyed that the director chose to change things that he didn't need to change, but I forgive him for casting Lisbeth so perfectly.

    I have read alot of murder mysteries in my day, and I thought this one was just really darned clever. I loved the end too, because I love a good revenge (and I loved the Lisbeth got a good f-you in there as well). My favorite part of all though was just the literary character of Lisbeth. I don't remember one so enigmatic in modern times. I might have even had a little girl crush.

    The thing about Larsson is that he does make you work a little before he allows you to enjoy his stories. You've got to trudge through a little bit of that in each book. Now get it in gear and read the next one (my personal favorite).

  6. Swedish movie is fantastic. In fact, I'd say it was better. Partly because it was heavily edited down to 2+ hours. In fact, for books 2 and 3, I didn't read them, just watched the Swedish movies instead.

  7. I haven't read these (!) but I love the films a whole lot. They're the exact opposite of the sort of film I usually watch, but I really got into them.

    Amazing, stark/smart contrast portrayal of Sweden, and incredible casting. The best casting I've ever seen. Every face in that film is unique... I can't yet articulate it, I don't have much of a film-watchers jargon, but I consciously enjoyed the expanding cast across the trilogy. Older than most films.

    PS what do I do now? I want to read the books, but I already 'know' them via the books. Plus everyone, even you, say the start is slow. If I get round to them, how tempted am I going to be to skip a bunch of chapters?

  8. I didn't really like the book but I'm sure it was partially must-poke-holes-in-something-everyone-else-loves because I'm a jerk like that. But I also think the book was so hyped I expected to enjoy it, even if it wouldn't be my new favorite, and for the most part I was just bored. Not just with the intro but in general. By the time we got to Harriet I didn't care so much. I liked Lisbeth and wish she was in the story more. And I've heard her rape scene makes sense in the context of the other novels but it felt like it was in this book for shock value only.

    I haven't yet read the other books in the series but perhaps I should give them a try. I've heard a lot of people say the second book is their favorite.

  9. FINALLY! Just kidding, but no, really, FINALLY!

    This whole thing about, yeah they were poorly written, I don't really buy, because while there were plot points and things that didn't make sense, I also feel like you can't do a whole lot of major edits like that when the author is already dead. So I give a lot of leeway for that aspect. But you can't write characters that are that compelling and it be poorly written.

    Anyway, you know already how much I loved these books, plot holes be damned, and I've seen all three movies already. What I'm looking forward to is the American versions. I also have no interest in reading the mystery fourth book because I'm happy with how the story wraps up at the end of the third. Can't wait to hear how you feel about books #2 and #3.

  10. I felt pretty similarly to you about the book. I would definitely recommend it to someone who likes mysteries. I thought Lisbeth was a great character.

    I thought the movie version was pretty good as well; it's nice to see all that Scandinavian bleakness. I'm really looking forward to the Fincher directed version.

  11. Great to hear what you thought of this one! I liked it enough but my problem with it was the whole "I'm sticking up for abused women" thing whilst gratuitously using the abuse of women within the book. And not just abuse but OMG I need therapy after reading that abuse. My thoughts are here: if you're keen :)

  12. I've only seen the Swedish trilogy shown on TV, so I'm not sure I can give a fair judgement of Larsson's work. And it was the complete trilogy with the unraveling of Lisbeth's story.
    Though it was highly entertaining and I think I can understand why it has so many fans. It has a fast pace, slick settings and a satisfying revenge at the end.

    But to me, it was just that, flat entertainment. I found the storyline over the top and very incredible. All thriller, crime and murder clich├ęs are thrown togehter and taken to the max. Too much going on in one story.
    Shock and awe. Once the adrenaline rush was over, I wondered what it was all about? A poorly executed plot taken into top gear?
    I might be missing something obvious but I can't find hardly anything that great storytelling or literature can bring. Not even one provoking thought to be discoverd.

    I'm sorry but for me it was like a big plate of fast food looking yummie. Full of calories and lacking nutrition, passing through at high speed and not very memorable.

  13. These books, all 3 of them, are a mixed bag. There are so many things wrong with the books that it would take forever to list them all.

    And yet. Like many readers I couldn't put the books down. The Lisbeth character in particular was one of the most unusual and interesting fictional characters in ages. I think that character got me through the long sections of these books where he gives us way too much detail about things that had nothing to do with the plot or character development.

    I've read a number of different sources that there IS a 4th book, and that there ITN'T a 4th book. Can't help but wonder if all that speculation is a marketing ploy to maintain our interest in these books. What do you think?

  14. As one of the few mystery-liking book bloggers who hasn't read this one yet, I'm going in with the same perspective you did! My husband read it and liked it but falls short of calling it the best mystery ever or even worthy of the hype.

  15. I agree about the last part of the book. There is something really satisfying about seeing someone get their come-uppance, whether it is a vicious killer or a really smug, corrupt businessman. Sadly, I loaned my copy of the second book before I read it, and now I can't remember who has it. Curses!

  16. Great review. Like you said, it was a very good read, but not a change-your-world kind of book. I think that you'll like the movie - very true to the book with solid acting. It's not going to win any awards, but it's very entertaining.

  17. I am apparently that rare reader that did put this book down. I had an ARC to read on a plane back in the summer of 2008, read about 130 pages & quit. My problem was that I wasn't seeing anything that I hadn't already seen, whether from Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, or the countless other predecessors - Scandinavian or otherwise - to Larsson. So what is it that I'm missing? (Because, clearly I seem to be missing something - these exploded into this crazy phenomenon right after I quit reading.) Is there really something wholly original about these books or are they just twisted enough that everyone is able to overlook the derivative nature?

  18. I bought this one for the nook just after Christmas, but I haven't started reading it yet. I'm glad to hear that the high expectations aren't totally shot down.

  19. Read this, liked it okay. Watched the movie, liked it better than the book, as it cut out a lot of fluff.

    Will not read book 2 or 3 (or 4?), but will watch the movies!

  20. My apologies to everyone for not responding to your comments personally. My weekend sort of blew up in my face. I didn't even get to the movie - but I'm excited to check it out based on your (mostly) positive comments. Thanks for reading!

  21. I loved the movie!

    This is my favorite out of all three - the last two were a little meh, and they needed editing, etc., but the author passed away before final editing could occur, and it was originally planned as a ten-book series. So. Not much refining could be done, at least not too much.

  22. I enjoyed reading your take on this book. I have read the first two in the series, and enjoyed them both. I will not be reading the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, for two reasons. Firstly I am happy with where The Girl Who Played With Fire ends (in terms of the characters). And as much as I got caught up in the pace of the first two, I am over it now. I guess the 1000+ pages of the first two seems like enough to me.

  23. Greg, have a cup of coffee...

    I liked the book as well and I also enjoyed the financial take down aspect of the book. I actually thought that the book was about the financial take down and the Harriet story was a sub-plot. Here is my take on the book:

    I also enjoyed the movie.