Thoughts on books: Stieg Larsson – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

by dantewilde


The first of Larsson’s trilogy introduces us to Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, the hacker and the journalist. Salander is one of the best anti-hero’s written in decades. Not only is her appearance striking and completely different to anything we’re used to seeing in mainstream literature, her personality is cold, delicate and in very few moments, she’s even a little bit childish. Salander’s personality is paramount to the success of the novel as a story, the conflicts and ultimately the resolution. She’s the most complicated character in the novel and Larsson has done a brilliant job writing her.

Unfortunately Salander does feel a little over equipped. Outside of her appearance and personality, she is a world class hacker, has a photographic memory, has boxed with Paolo Roberto* (who isn’t fictional!), and is even ready to be a cold blooded killer should the need arise. Don’t get me wrong, I love strong female leads that can carry a plot, hold their own and turn the tables. Her abilities however, do leave you knowing that Salander can and will overcome anything. (The one consolation is that Salander possesses her own moral code that doesn’t align with any other, so there is no knowing if she’ll morally overcome or immorally).

Mikael on the other had is, as Salander refers to him later in the trilogy, “practical pig”. As a journalist of many years, whose produced his fair share of front page stories and co-founded Millennium, before we meet him, he has an ability to sniff and ferret out information. He is also a practical problem solver, but unlike Salander, he doesn’t come across as over equipped because we expect as much from a journalist. When the two join forces, they literally become an unbeatable team and its only during the time they’re apart that any real danger befalls either of the duo. They compliment each other perfectly, Salander has access to anything on the internet and Blomkvist has the ability and resources to use the information effectively.

When you step away from Salander and Blomkvist, the novel is beautiful in its complexity. The Vanger family tree (Blomkvist is hired to discover who murdered Harriet Vanger) is long and complex, it has a dedicated page. To add to the complexity of relationships, those that haven’t died live in close quarters on an island and they all hate each other. At least, there isn’t a single member of the Vanger family that can tolerate the presence of all the others. Which in itself leads to an interesting situation.

The bulk of the novel is set in and around the island and right from the moment Mikael meets Henrik Vanger we are immersed in the family mystery. This includes being fed information and misinformation and dogma. We’re led to believe there’s a killer in the Vanger family and it seems impossible that the answer could be otherwise. This makes the unfolding plot and the revelations all the more interesting. As Mikael and Lisbeth come closer to the story’s resolution more danger and Larsson’s penchant for sadism present themselves.

What Larsson comes up with is truly horrific. Everything from Salander’s vicious rape to the dismembering of the cat. Sweden is shown in a light that we don’t often see it, a place where the truly horrendous can happen and is just a scratch from the surface.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a thriller from beginning to end but not in the traditional sense. What causes it to stand out from the others is its depth and the amount of information the reader has to deal with. It is far from the page turning novels of Dan Brown with short paragraphs and endless action to drive it forward. In fact, action is somewhat of a rarity, it’s socially aware, political, well written (brilliantly translated too, I might add) and when the action does arrive, its terrifically orchestrated.

Unfortunately, at the crux of the we learn that our antagonist, one of them by any means, is as fond as drawn out victory speeches as the next cliche. This is a trap and the character walks straight into it, because by unwritten rule, the antagonist that talks a lot is also the one misses his moment. Due, and it almost goes without saying, to the antagonist missing his moment, the protagonist finds them self in a position where they can be saved. (I’m talking around this as much as possible to avoid the iffiness of spoilers, the novel was written in 2009, but it took me this long to get to it).

Larsson dives into social norms that haven’t quite made their way into mainstream fiction. The sexual relationships with his characters are refreshing and above all handled without writer induced prejudice. Erika Berger, co-founder of Millennium, is Blomkvist’s love of twenty years, she has a consenting husband and Mikael lost his marriage to the arrangement. Malm, who works at Millennium, is gay and its a fact that is only mentioned in passing and Salander is bisexual. This part of the novel is as important now and as relevant as it was in 2009 and its fantastically matter of fact, as if to say ‘this is their lives, its normal’. It’s a shame there isn’t more of it mainstream fiction.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is refreshing and interesting in almost every way. While the one detraction for me is Larsson’s information dumping and the cross over into polemic its almost balanced by the novels other strengths. Larsson deals with the horrors of rape in such a confronting way that it isn’t possible to ignore. He wraps it into a complex and entertaining plot that takes the themes and ideas keeps them relevant and interesting.

*Salander’s relationship with Roberto comes out in The Girl Who Played With Fire but she shows a fair amount of fighting badassery before then.