The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

January 13, 2010

Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland

First published in Sweden, 2005

Knopf, 2008

Finished: January 12, 2010

Source: book blog

Reputed genre:  detective mystery / literary novel crossover.

Actual genre: international bestseller cleverly spun out of a decent Swedish detective novel with enough sordid elements to appeal to the masses, helped along by the fact that the author died shortly after submitting it for publication.

On the Scales: welterweight

I’m really wondering: why doesn’t anybody just say this book is about sadism? “International sadist mystery sensation! . . . [The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo] is an engaging literary vehicle for several disturbing sex scenes!”  Personally I’d have liked to know ahead of time.  I was nearly halfway through before I realized what I was going to be subjected to.  The original Swedish title of Men Who Hate Women would have given me a clue.

It’s not as if the presence of sadism is a spoiler.  And it’s not even as if most of the people who seek out this novel aren’t looking for typical modern crime novel gristle.  They are looking for that, plus some cool, engaging characters (suave magazine editor, cyber-punk pixie detective) and literary pretenses, to give them that useful feeling of combining their trash reading with their serious reading.

The book does take a sober, clinical attitude of moral outrage toward the sadism.  That doesn’t make it any less prurient when it appears.  Each chapter begins with a quoted statistic (presumably factual) about violence perpetrated on women.  I am rubbed wrong by this device in a genre traditionally designed to titillate.

A lot rubbed me wrong, and I had not expected it.  Here’s what I got from my osmotic knowledge of the hype (I was number 48 in the queue at the library).  Basically, it’s everything!  It’s a mystery.  It’s biting social commentary.  It’s a sweeping family saga.  It’s sexy.  It plumbs the dark forces of whatever has dark forces.  It’s a masterwork.

It’s also Swedish.  The hype had a common tone of self-satisfied largesse in admitting that such a good book could come from such an odd backwater of a country.  Kind of like giving it an E for effort.  This annoyed me and predisposed me toward the story.  I studied Swedish language for a year and spent two months traveling there.  I’m of Swedish descent.  I know a bit about the culture.

Ah, yes, Swedes.  Just listen:

By the time Berger left Hedeby on Sunday, Blomkvist was still so annoyed with Vanger that he did not want to risk running into either him or any other member of his clan.  Instead, on Monday he took the bus into Hedestad and spent the afternoon walking in the town, visiting the library, and drinking coffee in a bakery.  In the evening he went to the cinema to see The Lord of the Rings, which he had never before had time to see.  He thought that orcs, unlike human beings, were simple and uncomplicated creatures.  He ended his outing at McDonald’s in Hedestad and caught the last bus to Hedeby.  He made coffee, took out a binder, and sat at the kitchen table.  He read until 4:00 in the morning.

Swedish culture is one of the few (Japanese is another) that expects and makes allowances for introversion in human beings.  Visiting there as a 22-year-old was a revelation.  I had never imagined a place where you could count on strangers to be genuinely polite and helpful without being intrusive.  Reserve without surliness!  I grew up stifled by the by manic friendliness and fake-friendliness of the American west.  In other countries I was always having to brace myself for cashiers to be snippy and challenging for no particular reason, to be yelled at by cars of cruising hooligans because I was walking around with a backpack.  In other words, fair game for everyone who amuses themselves by imposing themselves on and attempting to one-up perfect strangers–a pastime of little interest to introverts.

In Sweden I found an aesthetic of graciously granted space, both physical and mental.  It made public places havens, and travel logistics a marvel of low-key ease.  There was also something undeniably sterile about it.  Look around at the shops: nothing old, or worn out, or cheap enough for a really poor person to afford–not even in the towns full cheap cement apartment blocks.  There were no dark leafy places to hide, no grotty Salvation Army stores, no gutted buildings, no piles of butts by the bus stops.  No cracks in the scrubbed facade.  Much as I loved it, after a while it gave me the heebies in a way I found hard to describe.  I felt what is essentially a one-class society with an emphasis on consensus–its dramas all enacted in private–as a kind of pervasive depressing weight.  (Swedes would differ on the “one-class” point, but I think that is because their highly-tuned social consciousnesses force them to nit-pick unfairness out of a situation which, compared to the rest of the world, is pretty good.)  I take what disturbed me about Sweden as a side effect of the homogeneity of the economic and political and educational structure rather than of the underlying national character.  Swedish Mentality by Åke Daun is a good book to read if you are curious about this.  Larsson has a reputation a writer who addressed this feeling of oppressive void.  It was the one thing I heard about him that made me eager to read his books.

How does it come out in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?  Hard to tell.  I didn’t really see it.  Introversion was certainly an anxious theme.  Perhaps he equated extroversion with caring and activism (he had a career as crusading magazine editor).  More times than I could count, he mentioned “introversion” together with a lot of different symptoms of mental illness, as thought it were a pathology.  Maybe the fault is in the translation; the word “antisocial” and “asocial” were also used a couple of times.

This was sometimes, but not always, in connection with the pixie punk detective.  A casualty of the well-meaning social system who fought back in her own way, she wasn’t exactly held up as model.  Like the sadism, her violent method of dealing with the baddies was designed to get your blood up at the same time as it was shown to be the product of an emotional dysfunction that ought to be righted.  Having the cake and eating it.

Another thing you can see from the passage above is that Larsson’s writing is very concrete.  There is an emphasis the physical details of life.  Not in a symbolic way.  Not particularly weighted or freighted or necessary to the plot.  Just telling you what went on people’s sandwiches in case you’re interested.  (I was, dammit.  I craved rye bread and pickles, which I can’t have because of allergies!)  That they bought groceries and showered and peed and had sex.  (Whatever.)  The machinations of evil corporations.  (Yawn.)  The dirt-digging of detectives.  (Ho hum.)  Even several paragraphs on the completely irrelevant specs and capabilities of a new computer! (You can hear the author slavering in the background.)  This concretism is both a quality of detective novels and Swedish writing.  I like it better in other kinds of books.

Perhaps The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a good detective novel. You may have gathered I’m not the best one to assess this book as a straight mystery because I’ve never been able to enjoy straight mysteries.  I’ve tried.  Especially when I worked in a library, because librarians–problem-solving souls that they are–tend to dote on them; there were always boxes of donated mysteries sitting around the break room.  For me to like a mystery crossover, it has to be really cross-overy.  To the point the the standard mystery progression of the plot is obscured, twisted, or even quite lost.  I haven’t found many.  Death of a Red Heroine by Xiaolong Qui is one, for the setting.  Tana French’s  The Likeness is another.  These books didn’t have to make any apologies for their pacing, concept, description or characterization, just because they were mysteries.

Incidentally?  Those introverted Swedes?   Are big readers.  They read books translated from other languages on a regular basis, not just when they’re international bestsellers.  A Swedish reader would be less likely to pluck this novel from its noir mystery roots and put it on a literary pedestal.

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4 Responses to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson”

  1. nymeth said

    The more I read about this book the more I suspect it’s not for me. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Sweden, introversion, etc. My first impulse is to pack my bags and move to a country where introversion is respected. But it sounds like there’s a dark side too.

  2. trapunto said

    Yeah, this isn’t quite one of those books I wish I could un-read, but if I owned a copy, I’d donate it to the library book sale, not give it to friend.

  3. Jeanne said

    Wow. This is one of the most interesting reviews of this novel that I’ve read.

    I didn’t think that much about the subject matter; when I read a mystery, I expect the murder part to be unpleasant and the pleasure of the reading to be trying to figure out who did it and why, which I thought was quite complicated in this one, and so I enjoyed it.

    I do know that I will not watch the movie, though, because I don’t want to see any of that.

    • trapunto said

      I’m a little embarrassed. I wrote this review before anyone was reading my blog. I’m surprised how it sounds on second reading. Like I had some bone to pick with the people who enjoy this book, which I don’t!, only with the author (somewhat) and the publishing/marketing machine (bigtime). My attempts at real-life deadpan humor have the same problem: they go splat. I’m not a puzzle or game person. It’s broadening to find myself reading blogs by so many people who enjoy the mystery part of mysteries.

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