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May 8, 2011

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Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Posted by on May 8, 2011

For the first time since Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code, our planet was struck by a true literary epidemic. Whenever I went out in public, I was continually accosted by the oddly appealing green and yellow swirly cover, which moved only when the owner removed her face long enough to flip to the next page.  If this book was a YouTube video, it would rival  Charlie Bit Me for number of views.  Due to prior reading engagements, I jumped on this extremely crowded bandwagon a little late.  And despite luring me in with the word Dragon in the title, I admit to having joined the sparse ranks of people who did not fall head over heels for this dark thriller.  My conclusion: Tattoo has harvested more hype than it deserves. 

[Surgeon’s General Warning:  The reading of this review could cause the immediate and disastrous revelation of key details, characters, and events due to the existence of the harmful ingredient commonly known as ‘spoilers.’ Do not read if pregnant. Enjoy a funnel cake instead.]

Stieg Larsson is no chump.  I attribute much of the bestseller’s success to his creative prowess and his skillz as a wordsmith.  I constantly found myself appreciating his clever wording, ability to create suspense while keeping the reader poised and engaged, and the creation of one of the most well crafted and fascinating characters in modern literature.  That being said, I found it slightly frustrating that the pacing of the story resembled a dozing 3-toed sloth who would periodically wake to chug eighteen Red Bulls.  It took roughly 250 pages of tiresome superfluous detail to really ‘get into it.’ But once I was hooked, I spent my entire Sunday afternoon/evening plowing through the last 250 pages without stopping to breathe.   This makes for a tediously exhausting experience concluded with a feeling of relief rather than a raging desire to start the sequel.

One thing that baffled me about this novel was that somehow it appealed to all ages and reader types.  This book is dark.  Very dark.  I found it hard to believe that grandmothers, bros, feminists, high schoolers, businessmen, nerds and minotaurs all had positive reactions to this psychological suspense.  But the vast majority did.  When Salander’s new guardian transforms into a brutal sadist, or when Blomkvist reveals Martin’s brutal kidnapping rape murders, I was confident that many readers would be turned away.  There is some sick, evil content in this book, contrived from characters with unstable and twisted minds.  Granted, I personally found these elements intriguing, albeit horrifying (and educational).  I was captivated not by what they did, but by how they had developed into a person who could do (and enjoy) such things.  Larsson’s portrayal of Martin’s personal development was genius.  It was easy to see the maturation from the smart little boy into the perverted monster. But teachers, do not plan to read this book aloud to your 6th grade English class – mothers have enough to handle without adding months of nightmares to the mix.

Lisbeth knows all of your secrets

As per usual, I will save the best element for last: Lisbeth Salander herself. Holy goodness is she a brilliant character.  87 pound badass bisexual Goth chick with multiple tattoos, piercings, a photographic memory, who does top line free-lancing detective work, and oh yeah – she’s one of the best hackers in all of Europe.  She also has a court stamp labeling her as mentally incapable of functioning in society. Combine all of this with her social inability to open up to or trust anyone, and you can begin to see how intricate this 24-year-old is.  We know that she has been traumatically abused in the past, as she refers to ‘All The Evil’ as a specific point in her past, but we never find out the specifics. Probably because of her inability to open up about herself to anyone.  Truly brilliant.  She speeds around Sweden on her motorcycle, discovering people’s innermost secrets and hacking into corporate bank accounts.  The only complaint I have is that she was more or less absent for the first half of the book.

As I reach the end of my review and the end of your patience, I can see you thinking something along the lines of, ‘You said Tattoo received more hype than it deserves, and then spent much of your review praising different aspects of the book.  What the deuce, man?’ Well, this is all true.  Larsson did not pump out a trashy fast-paced POS that somehow became super popular.  Tattoo is a well crafted, thoughtful thriller – it is skillfully written, a little slow and a little fast, very dark, and showcases a mesmerizing character. In other words, it is a very solid book.  And that is exactly the point that I am making.  It is a good book.  It is not a great book.  It will not become a timeless classic. Most people will not read this book more than once.  I like it when the talk around town is in line with the quality and class of a book.  This book deserves to be well known, well reviewed, and to be sitting in the showcased ‘Popular Fiction’ section of Barnes and Noble.  Worldwide viral status?  Not quite there.

  • I 100% agree

  • Great review, Jon!  I had been trying to decide whether to read this book, and you helped me make up my mind. And you made me chuckle at Charlie Bit Me again, too. 

  • Tom

    I’m bummed you guys didn’t like this as much as I did.  I basically saw it as an homage to “The Big Sleep” (http://nerdnewsandreviews.com/2010/08/20/review-the-big-sleep/), a book I would take with me to a desert island.  And, if Larsson was attempting to bring the hard boiled private detective into the 21st century, I would argue that he absolutely succeeded.

    While “Dragon” does have something of a slow start, that’s pretty much par for the course with these books.  In “Dragon” (as in “Sleep”) a lot of what I found interesting was that, for a while at least, no one’s sure a crime has even been committed (or at least a crime that can be solved).  As no body is ever found, flight is suspected of both victims.  Our detectives (admittedly, I’m conflating Lisbeth and Mikael here, just a bit, but they are something of a team) are approached by dying, old, rich men, to find their “adopted” children to whom they are attached more by emotion than blood relation.  There’s a good deal of tension mined from the fact that the people around our detectives’ employers (their family members, employees, etc.) are incredibly discouraging of the case and (unlike the employers themselves) not potentially suffering from senility.  When the mysteries of both books are finally revealed, much of the shock comes from the extent of the corruption and sexual deviancy (rape and incest, among others, in both) that lies just beneath the veneer of upper crust society.

    And, I would unreservedly agree with you here, Jon, Lisbeth is a genius character.  She is an incredible inversion of characters like Philip Marlowe, while simultaneously being a recognizable member of the gumshoe family tree.  She’s a tough as nails, five foot nothing who’s just as formidable as her six foot, male genre ancestors.  Where Marlowe uses deception and misrepresentation to get information, Lisbeth does virtually (pun intended) the same thing as a hacker.  While both individuals are viewed as unsavory by society, they are actually far more principled than the “respectable” people surrounding them.

    I would also say that, if you enjoyed Lisbeth, the remaining books in the series are connected more by their characters than their genres.  Larsson transplants Lisbeth into different worlds, creating a much more realistic character arc (over the course of three books) for her, as opposed to someone who (like many fictional detectives) is repeatedly just stumbling into murder mysteries.  “The Girl Who Played With Fire” reads like a Bourne movie (action and intrigue) and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is more of a courtroom drama (shout out to Jack McCoy).  If nothing else, I would encourage you all to watch the Swedish film adaptations of these movies.  You can watch them instantly on Netflix, it’s a much smaller time investment, and Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth incarnate.  To make an offer you can’t refuse, “All The Evil” is revealed…

    And, if you’re interested in a preview, Noomi Rapace is going to be starring in the upcoming Ridley Scott directed Alien prequel “Prometheus”, following (proceeding?) in the badass footsteps of Ridley.