The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Have people gone mad? It's gotten to the point where I think I've been transported to another planet. Seriously, what in the hell is matter with people? Two books that I believed had serious, structural flaws have surfaced on a number of Best of 2011 lists, and I just finished the blockbuster best seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hadn't exactly been avoiding this book, but the hype turned me off (shades of Da Vinci Code), so I didn't leap to purchase a copy. I kinda hoped my mother would read it and then lend it to me. Which didn't happen. Then I saw the movie trailer, and I admittedly have a serious jones for Daniel Craig. Although I abhor screen violence toward women (I walked out on Silence of the Lambs three times), I thought, hmmm, the Craig factor might too overpowering to shun the movie. I decided to read the book so that I would have a sense of the plot in case I had to walk out at some point. This book, despite all its hype and mega-sales is mediocre at best. At. Best.

First of all, although I write fiction, I would never presume that just because I have a proven facility with words, I could present myself as a journalist. It's a little like being a damn fine piano player and then thinking you can play the harp because they both have strings. Larsson's journalistic background undermines the first third of this book. Info dump after info dump after info dump pile on top of each other. Beyond some amusing lines every now and then, the dialogue is interchangeable. All the characters sound the same. The dialogue isn't relieved by any descriptive back story or physical tells. And, in fact, the back story in this novel is handled with a heavy-handed pen. Even worse, the main premise for the protagonist's taking off for the hinterlands of Sweden seems, well, manufactured beyond belief. If he's such a marvelous journalist, why are he and his partner (also, we're told, an amazingly competent journalist) so naive and trapped so easily? I mean, wouldn't you think after twenty years in the business they might check out the veracity of their source so that they wouldn't be the subject of a libel suit?

So for me the book begins with an implausible premise, especially when the reader is regaled with exactly how good a journalist he is. In fact, he's portrayed as one of the one few moral voices left in financial journalism in Sweden. Except apparently he isn't. The reader is left with the impression that he's either incompetent or immoral. Anyway, it's a device to transport him to a remote location to solve a locked room mystery, except this is its sister story, the remote island mystery. The mystery finally begins to reveal itself, which is interspersed with snippets of Salander's story. I have little to say about the mystery because if you've read as many mysteries as I have, then you most likely know the ending by Chapter Four. This book was no exception. Once I got the basic background, I had "solved" the mystery, even if I didn't know how it was done; this is why characterization in these books is key. Which hello, just not there. Protagonist is a cliche character, the typical extremely attractive man with lots of smarts and a decent heart. His interactions with women are cliche. Even his interactions with Salander are cliche. How refreshing it would have been had these two not become lovers. She is the only character in the book who is not weighed down in cliche, and then damn it to hell, she turns cliche at the end as well.

What do we have so far? Clumsily interjected back story, paragraph after paragraph of info dumps, pedestrian dialogue, and a majority of characterizations little more than recycled tropes. Let's list another major fail. Setting the majority of the book in a unique location begs for a tremendous sense of place, something that is a cornerstone of what I expect in most successful mysteries. Nope. We strike out on this front as well. I kept hoping that there would be a map at some point because I had such a hard time imagining where these houses were relative to the bridge. Other than being told it was cold (and this is the most glaring weakness of this book, we are told everything), I have only the sketchiest idea of what comprises this island's topography (other than one hill), its flora (some trees and shrubs), and its unique identity relative to this story. Other than it being an island and essentially the Vanger compound, it doesn't play into the novel at all. You might say, well, that should be enough. No. It's not. I suggest you read Martin Cruz Smith's Havana. I was sweating while I was reading that book because the descriptions of Cuba and the heat and the unrelenting humidity were such a part of the story. That book couldn't have occurred anywhere else. This book? I really didn't feel it was particularly Swedish, frankly.

Essentially, this book was a lot of soapbox wrapped up in a mystery. It was about exposing the level of violence toward women (as this is not unique to Sweden, it didn't strike me as particularly a reflection of Swedish society so much as a general issue in modern society). It was about exposing the level of support for Hitler by Swedish Nazis in World War II. It was about exposing the failures of the Swedish state to protect its wards. It was briefly about hackers and their world. It was not a successful novel. I struggled to get through the first third--questionable initial premise for the protagonist's trajectory; all this blather about the security agency that had no point--at which point the sexual abuse of Salander occurs, which is such a cheap, cheap shot for getting us into the novel, but I have to admit it worked.

And I felt that way throughout the novel. It was like the trifecta of cheap shots. Rape scene, bring out the Nazis, and how can we possibly forget the tried-and-true serial killer. Yahtzee! I know it's not fair, but I have just finished re-reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by Le Carre, where you have the most perfect blend of characterizations, back story, and plot. Which was a best seller in its own right. This is how far we have fallen. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is this decade's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.




Pen and Prejudice (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Roux Morgue (available in hard cover, trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Beat Until Stiff (available in trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)


Poisoned Pen Press

Mystery Writers of America

Sisters in Crime Northern California Chapter

Independent American Booksellers Association