After leaping enthusiastically onto the bandwagon with everyone else back in 2009, I feel a certain amount of pretentious indie pride saying that I wasn’t as awed by this book as everyone else apparently was. Which is not to say that the book wasn’t enjoyable and exciting; it just didn’t knock my socks off whilst simultaneously blowing my mind and rocking my world.
You probably know the story by now, but just in case, here it is: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (which apparently in Swedish is pronounced “bloom-kveest”, fact which surprised and delighted me when I watched the movie version) is hired by a rich old man to write a book about said man’s crazy rich family. That’s the cover story, anyway: in reality, the old man (Henrik Vanger) wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance and supposed murder of the man’s granddaughter, Harriet. She disappeared forty years ago, but a body was never found, and Henrik has been receiving dried flowers every year on Harriet’s birthday. Also in play is Lisbeth Salander, a freelance investigator who also happens to be one of the best hackers in Sweden. She also happens to be made of awesome, but I’ll get to that later.
There’s a lot of stuff dealing with assault, rape, and murder of various women. There is also a lot of sex in the book, and the stuff that gets described in the most detail is definitely not consensual and will probably make you very uncomfortable. You’ve been warned.
The investigation itself is pretty fascinating, implausible as it is that some random guy investigating a forty-year-old disappearance was able to find out completely new leads that eluded the police and girl’s grandfather (who’s been obsessing about the case since forever), but I digress. The family itself is equal parts interesting, creepy, and frustrating. It’s not until Blomkvist teams up with Lisbeth that things get really interesting, and they made such a fun team I wanted them to get their own detective show.
The book deals mainly with crimes against women and those who commit them (in fact, the original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women). Larsson obviously feels very passionately about this subject, as well as what should be done with the men who assault women. Without giving anything away, rest assured that every bad guy rapist/murderer/whatever gets a large helping of tasty justice.
And now for the bad stuff:
-There’s a lot of nattering on about business and computers and journalism and more business stuff that either bored me or went over my head completely.
-Larsson cannot seem to decide whether he wants to refer to people by their last name or their first name, so he switches back and forth and it is confusing.
-A family tree is provided at the beginning of the book, since the family the journalist is investigating is pretty big, but I never had much trouble keeping everyone straight. A map of the island the family compound is located on would have been much more helpful, since I never really figured out the geography of the place.
-Pointless details. I don’t need to know what the characters ate for every single meal, I don’t need to know exactly what model of computer/motorcycle/car a character uses, and I definitely don’t need to know what each character is wearing at every moment of the day. Larsson is especially guilty of this when Lisbeth is concerned – I guess he decided we wouldn’t understand what a unique counterculture tough chick she is unless we know that she’s always wearing leather jackets, boots, torn jeans, and black t-shirts with angry slogans. (yes, Larsson actually tells us what each of Lisbeth’s t-shirts says.) Listen, Stieg: Lisbeth is awesome. She is wonderfully defined simply through her own actions and thoughts – we don’t even need the other characters constantly reminding us how antisocial and tough and uncommunicative and badass she is. Believe me, we can see that. Show don’t tell etc. (since Larsson actually died before the book was published, it’s perhaps understandable that the printing was a little bit rushed in order to get the books on the shelves as fast as possible)
To sum up, I’m going to give the last word to the book itself, and quote a sentence that’s actually a character talking about a book featured towards the end of the story – but it could easily describe how I felt about Larsson’s book:
“It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.”
That, in a nutshell, was how I felt about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Verdict: three out of five stars
*What follows will be an evaluation of the two movie versions of the book. Continue depending on how much you want to hear me rant about movies.
I first watched the original Swedish version, and thought it was better than the book. Not that the book isn’t good; it’s just that the movie streamlines the story and gets rid of everything I complained about earlier in this review. In the movie, all the minor characters and business-drama babble has been eliminated, Erika and Mikael’s weird three-way relationship (yeah, that happens, and no, I will not explain it) is thankfully unmentioned, Mikael never boffs Cecilia Vanger, and Noomi Rapace is so fucking cool as Lisbeth I can’t even handle it. I’m also pretty sure they took some stuff from The Girl Who Played With Fire and put it in the movie, because there’s some stuff about Lisbeth’s past that I don’t remember from the book.
Having now seen the American remake as well, and re-watched the Swedish version, I have come to the following decision: While the American version is, in a technical sense, a better movie (David Fincher is a much better director – for just one example, the scene where Henrik Vanger explains the circumstances of Harriet’s disappearance is a masterful example of show-don’t-tell), I dislike the changes they made to the ending, and I simply cannot accept Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. Although I’m proud of Fincher & Co. for making her look and act as weird as the character should instead of sexualizing her, something about her portrayal still wasn’t right. If you’re interested, this article explains pretty much every complaint I have about American Lisbeth.