The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson


And so family skeletons are unearthed by this girl with a dragon tattoo. 

The book in one sentence: A girl with a violent past helps solve a 40-year-old family mystery.

My thoughts 

I've been coming across The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo online quite a bit. It resurfaced again at my office Christmas party, the trilogy was up for grabs as a prize. Now, there is the much awaited movie. I didn't win the books, but a friend ended up lending me her copy.

I had no idea what this book is about. My initial impression was that it was either a paranormal book (dragon tattoo anyone? I usually steer clear of paranormal), or chick lit (albeit edgy, because of that tattoo). I was way off target. Reading the book cover flap, I find out that this is a crime-mystery thriller! Being a huge Agatha Christie fan, you can imagine my excitement!

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Set in Sweden, three main characters converge:

Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of the Swedish political magazine Millennium, loses a libel case involving the alleged criminal workings of billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. Sentenced to three months in prison, he finds himself in professional hot water, on the brink of losing Millennium ...

Enter Henrik Vanger, the retired CEO of the Vanger Corporation which was experiencing some hard times but still highly influential. Haunted and obsessed with the disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet, some 40 years ago, he enlists the help of Blomkvist to solve this mystery.

The investigations pick up and Blomkvist is referred to someone who can help him with his research -  Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old hacker.

***

The storyline is quite simple. In exchange for Blomkvist's services to investigate Harriet's disappearance, Vanger would hand over Wennerström's head on the platter, so-to-speak, to Blomkvist when the year was up. Blomkvist could then redeem himself from the libel case.

Stieg Larsson had me when Henrik Vanger broke down upon receiving yet another framed pressed flower in the mail, a tradition that was started with Harriet, stopped at her disappearance, and later restarted. He was convinced that Harriet's killer was sending them to taunt him. After such a promising beginning, I was a little disappointed when the beginning of the book is slow. I was actually yawning through the first chapters, wondering when anything, something, was coming.

But my patience paid off. I pounded through this book in two days! This is a fantastic read! In many ways, it reminds me of Agatha Christie as it looks into the human mind, in all its perversity. As Vanger was convinced that one of the family was involved in the murder of Harriet, Blomkvist discovers : “Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.” (Errr, what does gallimaufry mean?)

And so Blomkvist enters into the world of the Vangers. He discovers a twisted family history with politics with a Nazi connection. Salander enters the picture with her superior hacking skills, her strong no-nonsense attitude.With intense, fast-paced action, together finally put Henrik Vanger's mystery to rest.

***

I found the character of Lisbeth Salander quite fascinating; with her sad and violent past, she was only one who I remotely cared for in the entire book. She is a genius yet declared by the state as anti-social, a druggie, unstable, violent, incompetent and needing a guardian. Lisbeth is the driving force of the novel - her story and her character complexity is astounding and without her, this novel wouldn't have the same punch. Her tattoos, her piercings, and her all-black ensembles are stereotypical, yes, but she has a multi-dimensionality that none of the other characters have.

One very strong point is that this is very much a commentary and exposition about violence - it tackles it in such a raw, gritty and unapologetic way that it makes some parts quite difficult even gruesome reading. You will read about rape, incest, sado-masochism, degradation to women. (If you can't handle graphic descriptions, then take my advice and please steer clear of this book!) Lisbeth is a study of this violence, the serial killer that they stumble upon, as are the various sub-stories within the Vanger family. The movie Seven kept popping up in my mind as I was reading this.

What makes this novel modern and relevant is the information angle. It highlights that information is power, and that in this highly wired world, the issues of privacy and security are moot, whether as an individual, a corporation, or even a country. It also delves into media, public relations ploys, and corporate espionage, making it highly relatable to today's realities.

***

While reading, I loved it. But upon a little rumination, I found less than satisfying how some of the themes were explored. For example, there was a religious angle that never really panned out (the listing of Leviticus passages that were the basis for murders). Also, the whole Nazi sidestory, which is potentially a very controversial an angle, never played out either. I felt rather shortchanged on those two fronts - why introduce them in the first place? There were just too many red herrings which failed to deliver.

I would have been happy with the book ending after the Harriet disappearance resolution. But no, Larsson had to see this book through. I felt that that perfect arch detracted from an already powerful storyline. So I suffered through a few more chapters and hated it.

I have a feeling that this probably reads much better in the original Swedish. There are some very odd words thrown in there! (I won't yammer about gallimaufry anymore, but who the heck has used that word?)

And lastly, as I am wont to nitpick, what were all those strange references to computer systems?  For example, Lisbeth's computer was run over and she needed a replacement and Larsson goes to list the specs of the computer. Or how about that odd and sudden reference to ADSL or that shareware notebook application? They may have seemed hip at the time of writing, but now it just reads outdated.

***

Verdict: If you were fascinated with Dan Brown's The DaVinci code, you will probably like this one! But honestly, have you picked up The DaVinci Code again recently? This is another "flavour-of-the-month book" -- a gripping fast-paced story which you will want to read, and even watch the movie ... and promptly shelve and never re-read. 

I would definitely read the two other books in the trilogy (The Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). But I have a feeling that the remaining books will be a shadow of the original.

First line: It happened every year, was almost ritual. 

Last line: She tossed Elvis into the dumpster.

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8 comments :

  1. He might have given unnaturally overhyped Se7en and "Social Network"...But this one s truly amazing....
    Definitely,a collector's item

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  2. I thought the Dan Brown books were trash. I'm pretty sure that people thought they were better than they were because of the fast pace, making it easier to miss all of the glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. The Millenium Trilogy, on the other hand, is an amazing series of books. They are well written and researched. And, they managed to get Mr. Larsson's message about the prevalence and horrors of violence against women in Sweden.

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  3. Naya saal - It was a pretty amazing read. I rather liked Seven - it had a much tighter storyline though, in my opinion. The only similarity of this book with Social Network is that it deals with info technology!

    piksea - I do look forward to reading the other two, just out of curiosity. I didn't get beyond Angels and Demons and I only enjoyed The DaVinci Code while reading it, it was popcorn reading for me. I was impressed with Dan Brown's research though, as I never would've though such an obsure subject matter would actually interest me. Sweden doesn't seem like such a nice place to live, as how it is depicted in the book!

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  4. I also read this book relatively recently, earlier this year. I enjoyed it! The language is really simple compared to some other authors but it gives the novel a nice pace I think. :) Admittedly the rape scenes were a little bit hard to read about for me. and I just saw the movie last night. Those scenes were probably even harder to watch :p.
    and interesting fact: the book series in the original Swedish language was called The Men Who Hate Women.

    Feel free to read my small blurb about this book as well! :)

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  5. I love the first book in the series, but the second and third books were even better for me. Right now I'm reading The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is all about Lisbeth Salander. I am so sad Larsson died with so many untold stories in this series...

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  6. I thought the second and third books were WAY better than the first. I felt like the first was sort of an introduction to the characters and the second and third books were more... evolved? I enjoyed your review and I hope you review the other two if you read them.

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  7. I've only read this one of the trilogy. I felt that the story was very well-done, and quite shocking at times. I did accurately guess the resolution of the Harriet case well in advance, but all the little details were surprising and interesting to discover. It took me about 150 pages or so for me to really get into this book. I almost quit, because it was a little tedious getting through all the exposition. I'm glad I finished it, but I really have no desire to read the others.

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    Replies
    1. Jamie, I felt the same way in the beginning. You ended on a good note, though!

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