A Book Review of “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo”
It’s both intriguing and terrifying that sadism has somehow become mainstream in pop culture. For some reason, we find ourselves drawn inevitably to films like “Hostel” or the “Saw” series. Years ago, the goriest flicks were ridiculous slasher-horrors or zombie films that were meant to be campy and comical. But now – probably because of excessive exposure and desensitization – it takes the ludicrously grotesque to frighten and entertain us. Torture, porn, and rape are commonplace in the realm of horror, with the most recently noteworthy example being “The Human Centipede,” which, in case you didn’t know, is exactly as bad as it sounds. But I didn’t come here today to talk about horror; I’m here to talk about a mystery-thriller, and a damn good one at that.
The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo is an internationally best-selling phenomenon written by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who curiously enough died with all three of his now globally known novels completed but unpublished. The tale focuses mainly on an investigative journalist by the name of Mikael Blomkvist, who despite being incredibly competent, is convicted of libel in the opening of the series. After stepping down as editor of his magazine, Millennium, he is hired by millionaire business Henrik Vanger to solve a thirty-six-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of a young girl. And the parallel plotline – one which converges magnificently with Blomkvist’s story more than halfway through the novel – is of our title character Lisbeth Salandar, a brilliant computer hacker with a photographic memory who is quite possibly the most efficient albeit unorthodox investigator around. But to say that Lisbeth is a troubled girl is quite an understatement.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the story is of violence against women. There are two actual scenes of sexual assault and rape with a number of references to other instances involving several different characters. And there is even a smattering of torture mixed in as well. To be sure, it is a story that is not for the faint of heart. And it comes from a guilt-ridden place in the heart of author Stieg Larsson, who witnessed and failed to stop the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. And the girl’s name was Lisbeth. In giving us a powerful female lead, it’s probably that Larsson hoped to offer up some redemption both for himself and the poor girl that he failed to save.
When I first encountered Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, I naively assumed it was a violently sexual tale that vilifies European culture in much the same way that “Hostel” or “Taken” does, causing Americans to be paranoid and senselessly xenophobic. But it’s not an American-told tale about the would-be evils of a foreign place that the author really knows nothing about. It’s a story about the moral darkness of Sweden, told by a Swedish man who bore witness to it first hand, leading us to believe that such a sadistic and twisted world might just exist out there.
For much of the first half of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, we bear witness to the horrific problems that plague Lisbeth’s life and her struggles to remain entirely self-reliant. We also watch Mikael move up north to research the disappearance of Harriet Vanger; he trundles slowly through a case with seemingly no leads. But when Mikael manages to find the first lead in over thirty years, he thinks he has stumbled onto the case of a serial murderer of women, and so he decides to hire a research assistant who turns out to be none other than Lisbeth herself. It’s there, in the first actual meeting between our two protagonists, that the story truly becomes electrifying. When separate, both Mikael and Lisbeth each have numerous believable quirks and a peculiar charm about them. But when together, their chemistry catches on fire, and their different yet compatibly investigative minds work at an amazing pace. It becomes even more interesting when they develop a budding romance despite the fact that Blomkvist is nearly twice Salandar’s age. Needless to say, what they eventually uncover surprises both them and the reader, whether it is the puzzling affection they develop for one another or the thrilling conclusion to their decades-old mystery.
So my ultimate judgment of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo is overwhelmingly positive. It’s dark but believably so, and while the writing style of Larsson is a somewhat dull at times and full of over-explanation – particularly in the first half – once the story really picks up the pace it’s fantastic. If you can make it through the first 50 pages or so, it’s virtually impossible not to finish this great read, and I’ve heard even better things about the sequels!
If you’re interested, head over to Snippets at the Cinema to catch my reflections on the two film versions made out of this book!