Dragon's Blood: A
review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
wonder which, for a writer, is worse: to die unpublished or to die just
before your books become an international publishing sensation. Stieg
Larsson didn’t worry much about the former, apparently, because he wrote his
books for fun after hours and didn’t do much to get them published. It
wasn’t long after he’d delivered the manuscripts of his Millennium
Trilogy, which to date have sold nearly 30 million books and spawned
three films, that he had the heart attack that killed him at the age of 50.
Either way, it’s gotta be hard.
There’s a great deal that I like about Larsson’s books—they’re enjoyably
addictive, as advertised—and very little that I don’t like, which for me is
rare. What I enjoy most are the colourful, vivid and highly principled
characters—particularly Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium Magazine’s diligent and
good, if overly earnest journalist, and, somewhat less, the feral but
brilliant Lisbeth Salander, who wins no points for congeniality and would
piss me off pretty quickly if we met. But liking a character is not a
criterion for being interested in reading about her.
The back story to the first book is the Swedish equivalent of a financial
Watergate, involving one of the country’s biggest and shadiest financiers,
Hans-Erik Wennerström. At the outset, an ill-prepared Blomkvist takes
Wennerström on but fails to bring him down, leaving him another 700-plus
pages to turn that story around. The main story, however, and the one
Blomkvist turns to in his self-imposed exile, is that of a woman gone
missing—possibly abducted, but more likely murdered—thirty-six years
earlier. Blomkvist eventually figures out which and, intriguingly, the
answer ties into his earlier battle with the mega-financier. Solving the
mystery also introduces him to the anti-social Salander, a true heavyweight
when it comes to illegal hacking and behind-the-scenes snooping, when he
employs her to help with his research.
Like other Scandinavian mysteries I’ve read of late, this book harbours a
fascination with sexual “perversions.” The subtext is always sex. (In fact,
the book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women. Can we say,
“Sociology Lesson?”) It’s as if the entire country has nothing better to
think about. Still, we know such things exist and statistics prove sexual
abuse is rampant—why would Sweden be an exception?—but as literary fodder it
at times seems merely horrific in a banal way rather than revelatory.
Larsson employs a naturalistic writing style—nothing fancy, and little
that’s inventive—the description of a cup of coffee is about the most you’ll
get. His narrative moves at a steady 80 mph in a 100 mph zone with
remarkable consistency, but is seldom boring. I enjoyed the labyrinthine
plotting, which could rival Proust for the intricacy of character
interactions. Before you can tire of one character, he’s off following the
trail of another, just like a good PI.
As Blomkvist delves into the story of the missing woman, the book skirts
melodrama frequently, but not too annoyingly. What is annoying, however, is
how often bad things happen to the most deserving characters in a way that
smacks of wish fulfilment on the author’s part. (More sociology, I presume.)
As well, the set ups for the mystery are a bit too simple. I guessed the
outcome to the disappearance after reading the first chapter—far too soon to
be tipping the reader off—and it’s not a terribly original solution, either.
Still, you stick with this story and its highly memorable characters
because, apart from any minor qualms you may have about them, they are truly
absorbing in the best possible way.