The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’d heard good things about Steig Larssen’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and when the movie came out my sweetie and I both thought we’d rather read the book before watching the movie. So, as a Christmas gift from us to us, we bought the book and its two sequels, and packed them along with us on the train.

IMPORTANT: If you don’t want to know who wins, STOP READING NOW! But really, you know already.

The books, all three of them, are pretty good. My sweetie and I may differ on which is the best; she hasn’t read them all yet, and so far I get the feeling our opinions diverge.

The first book is a mystery, while the second leans toward thriller. The third… I’ll get to that.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo puts a disgraced journalist in a position to solve a decades-old mystery and at the same time vindicate himself. The only problem is that a lot of talented people have spent a lot of time trying to solve the mystery, and all have failed. However none of those people had a 90-lb. dragon-tattooed social basket case who can hack just about anything helping them. Salander is pretty damn messed up. And with reason. Messed-up enough to carry a trilogy.

The start of the book is devoted to setting up the mystery. There’s tons of backstory about most of the main characters, long expositional dialogs, and then Blomkvist (the disgraced writer) gets a chapters-long exposition about the events of long ago.

I have to admit I got tired of all the exposition, especially since much of the backstory was then covered again in the natural discourse. At last all the setup is done and we can get on with the story. It’s a good story. As Blomkvist closes in on the answer to the original question, a new, larger evil looms, one still alive decades later and ready to kill any who come too close. It gets intense. Gritty, tight, anything-can-happen intense.

Then the book ends with five chapters or maybe more of literary masturbation. Let’s not talk about those.

Book two, The Girl Who Played with Fire was my favorite. It gets going and keeps going all the way through to the end. Funny thing here — it could be argued that this volume doesn’t end, which would put it right into my pet peeve wheelhouse. But the book does end, I say. Without giving too much away, the bad guys are stopped, the good guys are bleeding but probably not going to die, and if there was no third book, you could stop there and fill in the masturbatory chapters yourself.

What carries the story on is Salander’s past. She was not treated well, and it turns out the people responsible have a lot to lose. Book Three starts with a rapid undo of the conclusion of Book Two. Bad guys caught? Whoops! No! The cops were incompetent and for some reason see no problem with letting two people who tried to kill each other hang out in a hospital together without anyone watching them. Anyway, action resumes.

Then we get procedural. While I liked The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, it was my least favorite of the bunch. We see a lot of people doing a lot of things, and then other people doing other things, but for much of the book I didn’t get the feeling that the stakes were rising. Not for the central plot, anyway. I suppose this was supposed to be a chess match between the good guys and the bad guys, but the only source of tension was that the author deliberately withheld key parts of the good guys’ plan. Things got interesting after a while, when the bad guys start living up to their bad guy reputations. There’s also a crime that involves a gun that no one seems interested in tracing. Hm.

On the plus side, some of the character relationships do not follow the usual script. Alas, I can’t tell you about them. Just know that with my writer-cap on, I smiled.

I wonder if Steig Larssen heard the bell tolling and rushed the third book. It feels like a decent draft of a pretty good story. He just needed to go back and put Blomkvist’s balls into a slowly-closing vise, and find a better threat against Salander (top choice, Salander herself).

The end is reasonably satisfying, with a little more literary masturbation on the side. Maybe that’s why I like book two the most: Since Larssen planned to undo the ending anyway, he didn’t spend a lot of time adding public adulation towards the main characters. They fight through, and with talent and sheer will they prevail, and the story ends while they’re still bleeding. Maybe dying. But they won. We don’t have to know who made a bunch of money for a photo of a corrupt official being arrested, or how the television news validated our disgraced journalist. They won against evil, at terrible cost. The worldly rewards cheapen the victory.

A buddy of mine recently said (something like), “I read your reviews, and I like them, but it seems like you don’t like anything.” That’s actually not that close to what he said, but I have to admit I dwell on the negative more than the positive. Understand that the primary purpose of these critiques is to make myself a better writer (or at least a better editor). And honestly I have nothing against masturbation, it’s just that I don’t enjoy watching some Swedish guy do it.

All that said, these are good books. I liked them.

On a barely-related side note, while setting up the Amazon links above, I also found

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

1 thought on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  1. I liked the third one best. I’m curious to know which one TG likes most. I was avoiding these books because they were so popular and a book club fave, but then my sweetie put the movie on the netqueue (the swedish version, not the daniel craig update) and I so taken I went back and read the book. Then proceeded to binge on the whole trilogy.
    Interestingly there is a lot of controversy surrounding the books. Some folks claim that Steig’s lover wrote them for him as a ghost writer or that she helped enormously (the claim is that the novels are nothing like his ouvre of magazine writing, since he was a professional magazine editor. But then again, why should it?). But she is never credited, because Steig would’ve credited her but he kicked the bucket before he could. Apparently he wrote all three before the first was even published. Then he died and by inheritance rules, his estranged father and brother get all royalties leaving the widow-lover out in the cold (how do you describe the survivor of a domestic partnership with no legal marriage document?). Supposedly, in interviews she just smiles and says she’ll get her comeuppance, which leads people to believe she was the true writer and has a fourth volume up her sleeve. Who knows, I can pretty well admit everything I just said is hearsay, and I don’t claim any special insight.
    I streamed all three books-turned-swedish-movies on netflix and enjoyed them all. I wonder how the new english version will be. I’m not one of those snobs who prefers La Femme Nikita over Point of No Return, or Let the Right one In over Let Me In, but it may come down to a factor of I saw the swedish first and they are my fave by default. The swedish actress who plays Salander was absolutley born for the part, and Roona Mara has big shoes to fill.

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