The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson


I know that I’m late to the party with this one. I have always had a mildly rebellious disinclination to get into the current “big thing”. These days that might be described as hipsterish, but in reality, in Zaphod Beeblebrox’s immortal words I’m so unhip that it is a wonder my ass doesn’t fall off.

So I resisted reading the Millennium trilogy until now and have only so far managed the first book. The first thing to say is that, thankfully, it is actually a decent read and not a chore. Unlike for example, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which I attempted to finish in a day over a return train trip from Leeds to London (I fell a little short, but only a little). It also avoids being dumb or expecting its readers to know nothing in the way the Da Vinci Code did (surely I wasn’t the only one who thought that it shouldn’t take a professor of symbology a hundred pages to make the connection between the Knights Templar and the Temple church in London, even if this wouldn’t be common knowledge for most people).

The main narrative in the book is about the search for the killer of 16 year old Harriet, the niece of industrialist Henrik Vanger in 1966. Each year since Harriet disappeared, Vanger had received a framed dried flower of the sort that Harriet used to give him for his birthday and it had been driving him mad thinking that he was being taunted by her killer. Vanger engages Mikael Blomqvist, an investigative financial journalist who has just been convicted of criminal libel, to investigate for one last time to see if he can solve the puzzle.

The investigation and the description of the various strange and generally unappealing characters in the Vanger dynasty, combined with the small town oppression of the location, hundreds of miles away from Blomqvist’s sophisticated Stockholm, is very well done. The introduction of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo of the title, is somewhat artificial. Larsson went overboard in providing her with a mysterious backstory of behavioural eccentricity and manoeuvring the plot to unite her with Blomqvist in helping to solve the mystery, but I suppose that is all part of the genre and her general oddness is ultimately what marks the book out and helped to make it the sensation it has been.

What was less successful was the subplot about the industrialist Wennerstrom who was the subject of Blomqvist’s libel and the machinations which lead to Blomqvist getting his revenge. Basically this was a rehash of the Enron scandal paired with Salander doing an identity swapping sting and it sat, for me, uneasily with the claustrophobic mystery of the main plot.

I was also somewhat irritated by the repeated use of brand names of products to fill in information about characters. This can sometimes be successful – for example, James Bond’s cars, watches and other luxuries, written at a time of post-war austerity, were important. But, for a novel originally written in Swedish and set in Sweden, it is hard to see what nuance is provided by repeatedly emphasising that certain characters drove Volvos or that many had home furnishings by Ikea. Detailed descriptions of the meals characters ate in private also seemed redundant (at least for anyone who has eaten in an Ikea), although at least they haven’t dated as much as the luxury meal of prawn cocktail, steak and avocado (as a dessert) which Bond treated Vesper to in the novel Casino Royale. On the topic of dating, providing detailed technical specs of the high end Macbooks and other IT equipment used by Salander just reminds us of how far things have moved on – the specs being roughly the same as an iPhone 4 now, but with smaller hard drives. It seemed particularly unnecessary as the most impressive parts of the detective work were done through analysing old photographs and paper records.

I’ll start on the second book soon, but despite having enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m not sure whether it needs either to be part of a trilogy or the background narrative of the trials of Blomqvist’s Millennium magazine which presumably draw the books together. The parts of the novel which deal with financial journalism have a broader international interest than Larsson probably expected at the time of writing in that they express concern about opaque speculative financial transactions compared with the real business of making and selling stuff, written in the aftermath of Swedish banking collapse but well before the global financial crisis. However the story of the investigation of Harriet Vanger’s case was, for me, compelling enough to have stood on its own.

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