Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I have finally caved into the hype that surrounds The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Everywhere I go people are reading the Millennium series, and I admit, the hype did put me off. However, five years after its first publication and in an effort to change my reading habits and embrace popular, contemporary fiction, I thought I’d give it a shot.

This is a book that I almost didn’t finish. But this is not a bad review.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book of two halves. The first 10 or 11 chapters progressed at a snail’s pace. There are pages and pages and PAGES of back story, as disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist investigates the disappearance of industrialist Henrik Vanger’s grand-daughter 36-years ago.

Characters are introduced through seemingly unrelated threads of plot. Each character comes with their own history, particularly where the establishment of the Vanger family tree was concerned, and I did question whether this level of detail was entirely necessary. At times, the plot was stagnant, and with two plots at work (the Vanger mystery and the Wennerström affair), I wasn’t sure where the story was going.

Linguistically, it’s nothing special. The prose is straightforward: there no decorative words, extravagantly crafted sentences or paragraphs of imagery, and this is not a bad thing, but it is a style of writing that I have become unfamiliar with over the years. The title also confused me. So, Lisbeth Salander has a dragon tattoo, so what? It bears no relevance to the plot and is mentioned merely once or twice. The translated Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women: a bold, brave and relevant title that might have made me pick this book up five years ago.

The plot picked up pace about 200 pages in, and an inexplicable force kept me gripped! When the action kicked in, boy, did it kick in: the book went from being stagnant to vibrant, with the story moving so rapidly that I almost couldn’t keep up! I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is by no means perfect: but it is most definitely thrilling. The characters are superb, and security specialist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, is especially refreshing. The level of character detail that I originally questioned, was worth it in the end.

Aside from the brilliantly executed ‘who-dun-it’ mystery, the developing relationships between characters was pure indulgence, and added some extra excitement. The strange relationship between Erika Berger, editor-in-chief at Millennium, her husband,Greger Beckman, and her best-friend Blomkvist, is a particularly compelling one. Erika and Mikael have a public, long-term sexual relationship and Greger just gets on with it! The developing will-they-won’t-they between Salander and Blomkvist, and the touching but underdeveloped relationship between Salander and her boss, Dragan Armansky, are fascinating.

Ultimately, this was a thoroughly enjoyably read. So enjoyable in fact, that my book remains intact and hasn’t been defaced with pen marks and post-its: so caught up was I in the story, that I rarely made notes. I urge anyone who is disillusioned with the first part of this book, to not give up!

I want to, no, I CAN’T WAIT to read the next one…

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17 thoughts on “Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

  1. I agree with you regarding the length and all the unnecessary back stories. As you’ll find with the entire trilogy, Mr. Larsson could have used the benefits of a good editor. Unfortunately, his untimely passing prevented that. However, the character of Lisbeth Salander is an extraordinary creation, and worth the effort.

  2. I think the second one is tighter. I like the detail as it adds to the complexity and it serves you well as you move forward in the series. I agree about the hype, I didn’t really get it and still don’t go ‘there’ but I’ve enjoyed the stories. I’ve read all three in the last 3 months and seen movies 1 and 2.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the novel, but I think your criticisms of the first half of the book are a little harsh. It’s natural for a book, particularly a crime novel to pick up pace in the second half. If a novel started at a breakneck pace we would not be emotionally involved with the drama as we would not yet know the characters. Every reader of crime novels in some way wants to outwit the author and resolve the mystery before he/she gets to the last page. As the author is duty bound to keep the reader guessing we frequently ask ourselves; where is this going? How will he merge these random plots and characters together? Ultimately, it’s more satisfying to have the author outwit you than for you to outwit him.

    As for the prose style, yes it’s true the language is neither elegant nor beautiful. This may be something to do with the translation, but it’s common in crime fiction for the prose style to be sparse, economical, quintessentially hardboiled. If a beautiful woman walks into a bar, the writer doesn’t need to describe how she is beautiful. The reader can fill in the gaps, just as he is trying to put the details together to solve the mystery.

    This is a somewhat conventional description of crime fiction, and I agree with you that the Millennium trilogy is not without flaws. Flaws that particularly gripe when a book is overhyped. If anything the final novel in the trilogy is the weakest, but this may be attributed to Larsson’s sudden death during the editing process.

    Oh and one final thought; I really don’t like the title ‘Men Who Hate Women’. It betrays Larsson’s preachy, left-wing instincts which are repressed for much of the trilogy but become a big problem in the third novel.

    Great website. Looking forward to following it.

    Steve

  4. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for you comment, it’s nice to have someone disagree with me!

    I did worry that my criticism regarding the first half of the book may come accross as slightly harsh, however, the lack of pace did affect my personal reading of the book in a negative way: instead of being gripped, I unenthusiastically dipped in and out. In saying that, I do not solely blame this on the fact that the plot was a slow starter (I completely agree that it is an effective device in keeping the readers attention), I just felt that it could have been done to much greater effect with tighter writing and a better editing. All in all, I felt as though I was kept guessing for just a wee bit too long. I agree with you though, books that dive right into the action often give away too much too soon,and we don’t bond with the characters as well as we might have (a criticism I have of My Sister’s Keeper!). Larsson creates some fantastic characters!

    In regards to the prose, I did find it diffucult to adjust to reading a translated text. My critism of the language isn’t wholly negative. I’ve only recently begun to read and write about books that I would never have normally read: as a not-so-long graduated English literature student, I’ve become too accustomed to reading classics and I’ve been dying to break out of this habit, so this plain style of text is one that I’m slowly, slowly getting used to :)

    The reason I try to avoid hyped texts is that I think it forces me into expecting perfection, and that rarely exists, you know? And in a way, I feel like I’m already set up for dissappointment. But, overall, the book eventually exceeded my expectations and it was an brilliant story.

    Hope my reply isn’t too long! A long comment deserves a long response :)

    Thanks!

  5. Thanks for getting back to me. I empathise as I did my masters in Victorian Literature and now I’m doing a PhD on James Ellroy. The switch from authors such as George Eliot and Robert Browning to James Ellroy was a difficult and demanding one. That being said, it’s been an interesting ride.

    Steve

  6. my mother brought this book when she visited me over the summer and i was trying to finish it in the week she was here – i think i enjoyed it more because i read it so quickly i got through that first half of the book before i died of boredom.

    she sent me the second book and i feel, so far, about the same way you felt about “dragon tattoo.” but 270 pages in and it’s finally picked up and i WANT to read it (rather than feeling i should because everyone else has). one of the things i didn’t like about dragon tattoo, though, and that i suspect i won’t like about this one based on what i’ve heard, was the ending… the final plot developments were done really well, but then larsson wraps up the one mystery (i’ve forgotten all names by now, but…vangar’s son??) so suddenly that it felt like a let down.

    with you on the title, too.

    • Completely agree with you on the ending! Also, once the Vanger mystery / mysteries are all wrapped up there are still 70-odd pages of the book left. I found myself having to become interested in another plot that I had forgotten all about (although that was probably just me).

      I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next one :)

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  9. To be honest, I found the details in some of the scenes more graphic than I would have liked. I felt there were misogynistic undetones which I was not keen on.
    The slow start is typically Swedish becuase the domestic readership tends to favour such long-winded beginnings.
    It is however a pretty good, involving story, though as someone above said, a good editor would have shortened the book for a modern readership.

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