A posthumous bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an epic, character-driven thriller set in the cold plains of Sweden.
The middle-aged Mikael Blomkvist, journalist and publisher for the Millenium magazine, has a long history of investigating the seedy underworld of financial fraud. But his latest article is an utter disaster: unable to provide evidence for his sources, Blomkvist is successfully sued for libel. The resulting media hype over his downfall brings Blomkvist somewhere rather unexpected, investigating the dark history of a wealthy Swedish industrial family. The rebellious Lisbeth Salander (25), hacker extraordinaire, joins him, and together they uncover a rather stomach-churning truth.
The main characters themselves are intriguing—Lisbeth more so than Mikael—although it is hard to get a full grip on their personalities. The narrator is distant, omniscient, never sinking deeply into one point of view, which takes out much of the suspense. Furthermore, each action taken by the characters is explained outright by the narrator, without letting the characters speak for themselves.
It doesn’t help that there are so many characters, it is difficult to keep their names straight, particularly when some of the names are absurdly similar (Bjurman and Burman, anyone?). There are also several cases of abrupt head-hopping that were rather jarring. Lastly, there is little variety in the dialogue; all the character seem to speak exactly the same way, meaning it is incredibly difficult to form a full picture of each character.
As for the plot itself, there are several overlapping threads: Mikael’s libellous article, the investigation into the Vanger’s past, and Lisbeth’s day to day struggles as a survivor of abuse and her all-in-all misfit status. The case of libel, quite frankly, puts me to sleep: financial conspiracies hold little interest to me.
It is the Vanger thread that is the most interesting, and as soon as that murder mystery is resolved (about three quarters of the way through the book), the narrative loses much of its appeal.
As for the third thread, Lisbeth’s story, it tended towards the overly violent. Yes, this is a crime thriller, and thus violence and gore is expected, but the scenes feel often like they were written more for shock value than to propel the story onwards.
Larsson clearly wants to highlight the problem that is violence against women, as shown by the original Swedish title Men Who Hate Women as well as the pre-chapter stats about violence towards women, but the rather improbable plot and Lisbeth’s superficial characterization leave much to be desired. Also, the repeated comments about Lisbeth looking like a 16 year old don’t really strengthen his cause.
Finally, a rather petty complaint about the plot: the characters were ALWAYS drinking coffee. Seriously.
As for the writing itself, I found the pacing quite lacking, considering this is supposed to be a thriller. The first third of the book is mainly backstory, extremely dry to read. Once the story properly gets going, the pacing picks up, only to fizzle out again at the end.
The writing is also quite dry, the dialogue unnatural, the word choice often unusual, although I cannot say whether this is the fault of the translator or of the writer.
I particularly disliked the long asides of political diatribe, which gave off the impression of a rather self-indulgent author, particularly considering Larsson’s own life, which closely mirrors the main character’s.
Overall, the plot had some interesting twists, and there is potential to the story, but the writing itself feels unedited and makes the narrative lose any of its potential suspense. This story could do with a good rewrite, perhaps even deleting the first and last third of the book.
I don’t really see what the hype was all about, but then again, with bestsellers, I rarely do.
[Cross-posted on Goodreads]