Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

dscf1338I first read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a fair few years ago, back when the initial hype was still going strongly. I remember thoroughly enjoying it, but then exams took over and I never did get around to reading the next two books in the trilogy. Fast forwards a few years, and I have decided it is time to complete a few of the many series which have been on my bookshelf for far too long.

This book was originally written in Swedish by Stieg Larsson, and my edition is translated by Reg Keeland. Essentially, this book is a crime novel, with different threads and stories which eventually intertwine to centre upon one main investigation. We are introduced to Henrik Vanger, head of the Vanger family corporations. Henrik is haunted by the strange disappearance of his great niece, Harriet, which occurred many years before, and is even prepared to believe that one of the family members murdered the young girl. Secondly, we have Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, riding out the storm after he is charged with libel against a Businessman he knows to have broken many laws. Thirdly, there is Lisbeth Salander, a sharp contrast to the two men mentioned above, with a strong liking for tattoos, piercing, and black clothing. A genius computer hacker, this feisty young woman holds her own dark secrets, yet is inevitably drawn into the world of both Mikael and Henrik.

Firstly, I want to say how much I thoroughly enjoyed the short prologue to this book. It sets out a rather peculiar mystery, in which ever year a man is sent a beautifully pressed and framed flower by an anonymous person who cannot be traced, despite the best efforts of the police force. The ‘Case of the Pressed Flowers’ is a simple, yet highly intriguing way to start the book. The fact that it is something as innocently beautiful as a single flower being sent, rather than something more obviously sinister, actually makes this mystery feel more eerie in its apparent gentleness. Additionally, the police officer ‘could not say . . that a crime had been committed’ (p. 4), yet the case of the flowers still remain unsolved, thus creating a masterfully atmospheric introduction to this novel, and a prelude to the main plot of the book.

Something I was perhaps not expecting within this book was the amount of detail the writer is able to go into revolving the financial and business world. Admittedly, some of the more complicated examples may have gone over my head, but not to the point that I became disinterested. I actually feel like I have a much wider concept of how the Swedish business world is managed. Additionally, these insights into Swedish business have been written for a reason, a reason which becomes clearer the further you probe into not only the mystery of Harriet, but also the mystery of how Mikael came to be charged with libel against a man as powerful in the business world as Wennerström.

Praise must be given where praise is due, and I certainly must divulge this upon Larsson and his ability to seamlessly work various plots and side stories into one cohesive, and enjoyable, novel. Somehow, Larsson was able to keep sight of the end goal of these plots, and did not get lost along the way, which could have potentially resulted in a confusing, or unskilled novel. Likewise, despite the varied nature of plots points, they are all still made approachable to the reader, with each character becoming increasingly interesting to the reader. Though this is a crime novel, with a wide range of criminal acts, each one feels personal on some level because of the believable characters. This is not simply a cold, detached account of differing crimes, but is also a reflection on the effect they have to those surrounded by them.

For those of you who have read this novel, I am sure you would agree that it would be impossible to write a review without mentioning the character of Salander. She may be quick to take on the defensive role, with her punky attitude and looks, but Salander is an example of a truly complex, multi layered woman. Not only is she subjected to the prejudice surrounding her choice of clothing and appearance, but she is also a woman working in a very much male stereotyped  environment. Working for a security company, and taking on the role of a Personal Investigator, Salander is completing the role which for years has been traditionally viewed as a career which resides within a man’s capabilities. Salander, in no way, shape or form, fits the mould for the stereotypes often ascribed to women. As her male boss can testify, sometimes he felt so ‘provoked by her lack of emotional response that sometimes he wanted to grab hold of her and shake her’ (p. 39). Salander, despite the consequences it brings, refuses to be controlled by either society or individuals.

As intriguing a character as Salander is, it is not to say that she overshadows the men of the story. Mikael in particular proves to be a fascinating man to study. The fact that he is not in fact a police officer, or a detective, yet he is roped into the strange affair surrounding the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, proves the worth of the skills he does contain, particularly that arising from his journalistic background. By allowing his journalistic skills to become transferable, we are given a slightly different spin on the traditional detective novel. Having said this, I found it fascinating that in many ways, Salander is in fact the true detective, and that without this gender role subversion, Mikael may not have not gotten so incredibly far.

The main case which the novel actually hinges on, that of Harriet Vanger, proved to be a mystery capable of quickly hooking the reader. The fact that it is a past crime, and one that has been surrendered as a lost cause by the police, makes it all the more satisfying to follow. Likewise, the fact that it is a family centered crime, where gritty family past and secrets comes to light, allows the novel to become much more accessible to us. The places in which we are told the history of the Vanger family were particular favourites of mine. Not only did they paint an image of an extremely dysfunctional, and so entertaining family, but they were also historically interesting, especially whilst covering the World War Two period. We get to know the Vanger family very well, and as a reader we quickly form assumptions based on what we are told, or what is implied. I quickly established a vested interest in this case, with a need to know what really happened.

I found the writing itself to be very well executed and articulate, without the overly pompous nature of many more ‘literary’ novels. The quality of writing allowed a genre which is often perceived as a quick, easy read, to become a novel with a lot more substance and backbone to it. Obviously, the version I have read is translated, so I do wonder what it would be like to read the writing in the original language, and whether this would improve the novel further.

This book, it must be stated, does contain very graphic scenes which would naturally be upsetting to some readers. A large part of the novel focuses upon sexual assault and rape. Whilst this is a difficult topic to discuss, it was very interesting to read about it from a country which is different to my own, yet which is able to highlight the similarities. A paragraph which follows on from a discussion suggesting that the police are not necessarily the greatest help in situations which have become so complacence, struck me particularly hard:

‘In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status’ (p. 204).

It is so sickening to thing that this could be the case in a modern society, and that many women are made to feel this way. It is also especially poignant considering the media coverage given in today’s world regarding sexual consent, especially because of the way a certain person may chose to dress their own body. Crisis centres which exist to help with this kind of abusive are mentioned, but quickly dismissed by one character as a place for victims, which is something they absolutely refuse to be. This very stark assertion speaks volumes about the stigma surrounding victims of sexual abuse or violence, and address a very troublesome area of society we are continuously  facing.

The main thing which I feel obliged to thank Larsson for is his characterisation. Larsson is not afraid to write flawed characters, and that is exactly what he has done. We may be rooting for particular people, hoping for the best outcomes, but that does not mean that we necessarily agree with every decision they make, or indeed can even justify them. Importantly, this is exactly how people behave in real life; the world is not simply black and white, but a confusing, convulsing shade of grey. Take Mikael for example. He is the lead investigator of this case, but did I agree with the decisions he made, especially from certain moralistic point of views? No. But I understood his character enough to see why he would make such difficult choices, even if I remained unconvinced or doubtful from my personal perspective.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book that upon completion you could immediately go back and re-read, picking up on a plethora of things which were initially unnoticed. I think that it is a testament to the skill of Larsson and his mastery of the crime thriller genre. Nothing can be accepted at its initial face value; all must be scrutinised and open to debate. As you can probably tell, I loved re-reading this novel, and cannot wait to embark on the next installment!

Publisher: Quercus

Rating: 4*/5*

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