by Stieg Larsson
608 pages, Vintage
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
There’s been so much hype surrounding Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” that I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid them. Ever since trudging through Yann Martell’s much lauded but wholly pointless “Life of Pi”, I’ve been wary of buying into any kind of hyperbole that is attached to new works of fiction.
Only those living under a rock could have escaped the maelstrom of praise that has been lavished on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and the two sequels. Here’s a quick recap for those who have somehow remained oblivious to the hype: celebrated Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson drops off the manuscripts for three crime novels with his publisher then promptly drops dead of a massive heart attack. The novels are published and become an international phenomenon, translated into dozens of languages and receiving a staggering amount of praise from critics the world over. With both Sweden and Hollywood releasing screen adaptations of the books (the Hollywood version is set to star Daniel Craig and is directed by David “Se7en” Fincher), their popularity seems set to soar even further.
With such huge media attention, it’s hard to approach “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” from an objective point of view. I felt the same way when reading “Life of Pi” – so many had said what a work of genius it was, I felt almost obliged to enjoy it. It was only about a year later when I picked it up for a re-read that I realised what a muddled, aimless mess it was. So much has been written and said about the first instalment of the “Millennium Trilogy” that reviewing the book almost seems to be an act of futility. However, the real question still remains – is the novel worthy of the hype?
A thousand times, yes.
I can’t praise this book enough. I am in awe of Stieg Larsson. I want to shake his cold, lifeless hand and whisper words of admiration into his dead ears. In all honesty, I cannot think of another author of crime novels – living or dead - that is on a par with him. Everything about the book is perfect. Everything. How many novels can you say that about?
The labyrinthine plot draws you in, unravels at an uncommonly leisurely pace yet keeps you gripped until the bitter end. A brief summary would be pointless so I won’t bother. It would fail to adequately capture the subtle nuances and shifting relationships between the main players in the story. Although the pacing might at first seem to be a little on the slow side, patient readers will see that Larsson does this so as not to force the action. In this sense, the novel eschews the dramatic rhythms established by popular crime and thriller writers, allowing Larsson to deliver something far more believable.
Whilst the plot is as watertight as they come, it is the brilliant characterisation that really strikes you and makes you realise that what you hold in your hands is something very special indeed. The protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who lives by a strict moral code that puts him in a number of difficult situations. A well-rounded and convincing creation, Blomkvist is a million miles away from the contrived Robert-Langdon-a-likes that litter popular fiction. Not a he-man by any stretch of the imagination, Blomkvist is a figure whose mature, level-headed masculinity brings a sense of stability to the chaotic events around him. He provides a wonderful contrast to the morally bankrupt, dangerous and domineering males that are encountered during his investigations (the Swedish title translates as “Men who Hate Women”, a title that suits the book far better than the Waterstone’s-friendly English-language version).
The eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo is Lisbeth Salander, a waif-like goth-chick computer hacker extraordinaire with a photographic memory and the social skills of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”. The relationship between Salander and Blomkvist is developed in such a way that the reader never feels the partnership of such a mismatched couple is stretching the boundaries of possibility. Although their initial partnership is professional, being a pair of warm-blooded Swedes this soon develops into a casual sexual relationship. The relationship changes the characters, each gaining a little bit of the other’s personality in the process. Whilst Blomkvist moves away from his rigid moral code that he adheres to so strictly at the outset of the novel, Salander’s tough exterior begins to soften as her love for him grows.
Some would argue that such a detailed focus on the interplay between characters would detract from the main plot of the novel, but this is actually the book’s greatest strength. We find ourselves so absorbed in the main plot that such subtleties only emerge when reflecting on the story as a whole. A masterful trick that just goes to show what an accomplished storyteller Larsson was.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a staggeringly good read. An intelligent, gripping thriller that is both tender and brutal. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.
Hereward L. M. Proops