The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

By Stieg Larsson

We read this book for book club last week. In Sweden the book is titled Men Who Hate Women, and after reading it I can see why it would be called that, but I can’t see why it was given such a different title in English. Before the meeting, we individually looked various things up about the book, and I discovered that it was the first book in a planned series of ten, and that only three will be published because the author has died. That’s going to play a huge part in my criticism of the structure of the book, but I’m not there yet. Mostly I liked it. Mostly everyone in book club liked it, but none of us can understand what’s so special about this book that there was a sixty-person waiting list at the county library and a thirty-person waiting list at the city library, and a twelve-person waiting list for the audiobook (which doesn’t work on iPods anyway). It’s kind of funny but even with all these people waiting, I used my county library privileges (shared with at least tens of thousands of adults) to check for the book in the university libraries (one was available at UC) and request it. It arrived at the branch of my choice in a day. (How did no one else think of that?) And then I gave it to BFF to read, because I had already acquired an iPod-playable version of the audiobook from other sources entirely. They came on two giant single-track files, each eight hours long, but even that taught me something about how iPods and iTunes works that I was able to turn around and teach my brother and improve his life. That very rarely happens, so it was a nice change for me.

I don’t really feel like going into a summary of the book. It’s readily available, and it’s basically a mismatched team working out of their element to solve a decades-old missing persons mystery. The main character, Michael Blumkvist (the spellings are total guesses because I listened to the book) is clearly the author’s alter ego. Activist journalist, goes to jail protecting a source, successful magazine entrepreneur, relatively famous, handy with the ladies, homeowner… The character screams idealized self. The girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth Saunders, is also some kind of fantasy figure straight out of anime (I think). She’s small and unusually beautiful, she artificially adorns herself with ink and dye, she rides a kick-ass motorcycle and can really fight, she has sex with girls and boys, she’s hacker smart, and she’s sensitive, vulnerable, and alone. The book really isn’t about her, either as protagonist or object, so even though I’m sure “Men Who Hate Women” would not sell well as a fiction book in the United States (too self-helpy), I don’t know why the title was changed to that. If we only ever perceived her through Blumkvist’s eyes and she influenced him, then yes. But half the book seems to be about her (without her ever really achieving equality to the protagonist). The book ends suddenly and jarringly from her perspective (hundreds of pages beyond where it should end), but surfing around online to learn more about the book reveals that the end of this one mostly is all set-up for the next. More on that later.

I apologize for the lack of eloquence of this review; I’m experimenting with a new program to burn DVDs from computer files so they can play on DVD players, and the first time I did it I managed to burn a blank disc. I’m redoing it now, and it’s a long process, and I keep leaving this blog to see what’s going on. I’m funny like that. Some people would call me easily distractable. I think it’s more like I don’t really care about this book and don’t want to start ranting pointlessly so I’m giving a bland analysis and that if I can get this DVD thing to work it will solve a lot of problems for me. Count your blessings that I’m not on the topic of tomato seeds. That’s just leading the blind with the stupid. And now the baby is crying.

And now that I am back the disc is spinning in the drive and it looks like burning has commenced!*

It’s a straightforward story, all things considered. It opens with an interesting hook: An old man receives anonymous annual birthday gifts just like the ones he used to get from dead girl. He calls in an investigative journalist, who calls in a brilliant researcher, and they solve the case. Except there’s this totally distracting subplot about a financial scandal that provides enough plausibility to explain why a journalist would leave his own magazine for a year to pursue this project, and not nearly enough interest to keep going with the story for hundreds of pages after the mystery wraps up. It was utterly inexplicable, until I read the first few paragraphs of the second book in the series. It’s all just this set-up to show things about Lisabeth’s character and give her a circumstance that makes the events of the next book possible. And that’s some serious structure flaw. Books should end at their ending, and if you need to put a character in a certain place for the next book, either put it in the next book or in the middle of the first one. If you want to build a series around a character, explain more or less about her. This is where dead author comes in.

You learn that the author has been writing this story in his free time for years. He mapped out a ten-book series, but started shopping it around after only three books. It ends up with a publisher and he dies. Now what? It makes a lot of sense to publish this very interesting set of stories about this very interesting person, but you can’t really do a lot of fixing and consulting with a dead author, and unless there’s been allowances made by the author (who in this case died suddenly), you really aren’t going to be the publisher who tries to spring a ghostwriter on the franchise. It would have been a very easy thing to sit down with the author and fix all these problems had he been around to do so, and a very presumptuous thing to make these kinds of significant writing changes when he is not around to do so. So they ran the books as is. I don’t want to call them rough drafts, but they definitely needed rearranging and culling that is was impossible to do. A shame, really. They probably could have been very good. It was an exciting mystery to solve, and there was only one unforeseeable random piece of the puzzle that was conveniently invoked by the author to solve the puzzle, and that could have been fixed in two sentences.

What puts me at a disadvantage, and perhaps many American readers, is not really knowing what strange elements are translation problems and what are cultural differences. This is a Swedish book. Stuff with legal guardianship and abuses of power that permeate Lisabeth’s story seem fantastic and unrealistic and make certain parts of the book downright cartoonish. BUT (… but… but…) I don’t know jack about the Swedish social services system, or the loopholes that exist, or the people who fall through cracks, and the people who control it. The author likely does; he has a real-life reputation as an actual investigator. If his version is more truth than drama, then it’s definitely a source of suspense. If this story were happening in the United States and written by an American, I’d say that it was goofy and that they undermine Lisabeth’s intelligence and good sense (which she does mostly have). In Swedish, they probably resonate more (although the business with that icky guy is over the top and unrealistic in any country). It is a book called “Men Who Hate Women.” Color me naive or misinformed, but I think there are too many checks and balances in the U.S. for men like that icky guy to get in the position he’s in. I also don’t think a 24-year-old woman with a job and an apartment and friends in a band would be in Lisabeth’s position at all in the United States… even if they had been painted with the Asperger’s brush. Frankly, they don’t have time to bother with the likes of her. There are too many people in the system. This might be one of those cultural things that just doesn’t translate in the specific. It doesn’t really affect this story, and it seems to be a key part of the next book from what I’ve read. But the tattooing part? That’s the first thing I’d have cut as an editor. Which I am, but not when it really matters, dammit!

I learned a heck of a lot about Sweden from this book, which I enjoyed. I still want to visit Norway more, but I can’t imagine not hitting the whole peninsula while I’m up there. I thought the relationships between the normal characters were realistic, and the handiness with the ladies and the polyamorous affair didn’t bother me at all. A character can have one extraordinary element and not be a Mary Sue, or a Marty Stu** in this case. People in book club rolled their eyes at him, but despite my mockery of him in my earlier paragraphs Blumkvist was pretty likable, and I enjoyed the interactions with him and Lisabeth, although him banging her was pretty jerky, even if she did instigate it. He ought to know better. He’s still a believable character.

I still have no idea why this book is so popular right now. It’s basically unfinished, translated material–from Sweden. Not a lot of people in Sweden to go crazy over some book and capture the attention of the world. The death was sudden, but the guy was fifty–it was no James Dean car wreck or River Phoenix overdose. I think I would find the story of its global success as interesting as the story itself, if not more so. Maybe someday soon I’ll meet someone from the publishing world who will explain it to me.

I’m not going to read the rest of the series. Mystery isn’t my thing, especially mystery with a recurring character. I liked it a lot more than I Is for Innocent or the part of the Janet Evanovich book that I read. Not as much as the Tony Hillerman one about the haunted mesa which was the first one in a series, I think. Less than Cryptonomicon. A lot of people who like mysteries seem to like it on Amazon, so I’m not disrecommending it.

But if you are going to read a thousand pages or more about Lisabeth Saunders in series form, I think you should read a thousand pages of Cryptonomicon first.

*Something went wrong with the DVD burning, and I couldn’t verify the disc at about a third of the way through the process. The movie plays on the DVD player, but right at this one part there’s some strange stalling, which one stopped the disc and a few other times moved through it. I burned this disc as a back-up for Fella and Filly to watch; I’d backed up to the computer but it’s not that convenient for them to watch TV via my hard drive while I’m trying to work. They should be alright. My next adventure tonight is to see if I can figure out how to make this label burner thing work on my laptop. Supposedly I can burn images right to the front of the disc. Might as well test two things in one day! This too could change my life.

**Believe it or not, but I made up “Marty Stu” just now to be funny, and then saw the phrase on Wikipedia in the Mary Sue page! I feel positively Jungian right now, and not at all like I’ve been beaten to the punch. I’m participating in humanity!

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  • Reg  On February 26, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Sorry you didn’t like the book, and to correct a misconception, Stieg did live to work with his editor on books 1 and 2. He died while they were working on #3. When translating the books I viewed them as one big epic, and indeed it all hangs together in my mind. But it’s impossible to publish a 1500-page book, as you well know. As for editing, they just don’t do a heck of a lot of cutting and rearranging in Scandinavian publishing houses, and the books still sold 3 million in a country of 9 million, so thriller fans definitely liked them. I couldn’t read more than 10 pages of Cryptonomicon.

  • Karen  On February 26, 2009 at 9:55 am

    No! No! I liked the Harriet story and I liked the Mikhail/Lisabeth dynamic and I liked the setting! I know I focused on some problems, but the book’s central story was entertaining. I think it got buried by unnecessary story–that’s my main beef.

    And if I made assumptions based on misconceptions, I apologize. Everything I know about this book I learned from Wikipedia or what someone in book club said… I’m not surprised that I picked up a few. Thanks for clearing Larsson’s good name. As for the structure–I do know that books come out of national traditions and customs, and I wondered how much of the stuff I found strange was just an unfamiliar Swedish thing. I really don’t think I’ve read another Swedish novel. If it’s not a thing to rearrange a book, then that makes a lot of sense. I wish they’d given it a different English title, though. I think it contributes to some of the character focus problems that I saw.

    SOMEWHAT RELATED ASIDE: I can spot a Canadian television show in ten seconds now that I’ve seen a bunch of them.

    My other thing is that, like I said, I don’t really like straight-up mystery stories that much, although that usually means detective novels which this wasn’t (and I did like the book mostly). I also don’t really like when the same characters appear over and over doing the same thing (like detective novel series). I do think an American author could have sold a very long novel (probably not 1,500 pages, but there was cullable material), but if there were supposed to be ten books, you might as well break each crime up into a separate installment.

    Lots of people really like this book and want to read it, so I think it’s a success. Remember that I’m just a malcontent at home all day typing on the computer. Don’t take my complaints too seriously!

  • Gabriel@writeronwriter  On March 6, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Good review. I agree – I don’t really understand what sets this book apart from other mysteries/thrillers on the stands. And you make a good point that it went on too long after the mystery was resolved. I’ve done a review on my website, if you’re interested.

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