At age 50, Stieg Larsson suffered a fatal heart attack after climbing seven flights of stairs- the Millennium series is his legacy. The internationally renowned crime trilogy opens with “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and includes two other novels, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.” Published posthumously, the international bestsellers have been translated into over 40 languages. Swedish film versions of the three books have been released and James Bond star Daniel Craig headlines the upcoming US versions along with relative newcomer Rooney Mara. The first installment in the Craig-led films is slated for a Christmas 2011 release date. The buzz surrounding these novels has raged unabated for some time. In a three part series, I will wade through the hype and separately discuss each of the texts that set the literary world ablaze.
Part I: “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“Dragon Tattoo” fuses dual story lines through the central characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist, convicted of libel and sentenced to prison, is forced to separate himself from Millennium magazine, of which he is a co-founder. He decides to accept an unorthodox offer from business giant Henrik Vanger. 40 years ago, his niece Harriet disappeared without a trace at the age of 16. Blomkvist is to call upon his talents as an investigative reporter in order to peer into the cold case and examine the disappearance with a fresh lens. He enlists researcher Lisbeth Salander to assist in the investigation. A second plot involves corporate espionage and fraud involving a massive Swedish corporation against which Blomkvist has a personal vendetta.
Elements of racist organizations (Larrson was considered an expert on the subject) and a lingering Nazi presence can be felt. Sadism, sexual violence, casual adultery, and meaningless sex abound in a twisted family and those who delve into the lives of its members. Heavy topics such as violent rape are common, and seemingly every male character has a degrading view of women. In fact, a working title for the book was “Men who hate Women.” I’m a big fan of this title- easy summation of the novel.
Blomkvist we’ve seen before; nothing about his character pushes boundaries or snares my focus. At times I’m not even sure whether he feels much at all. He casually sleeps his way through half the character base on his way to driving forward the story. But the jewel lies in Salander, age 24 at the start of “Dragon Tattoo.” Salander buoys a sometimes porous plot. She is vivacious, unflinching, insecure, astronomically intelligent, and often unpleasant. She is one of the most dynamic characters in modern literature, and she is sure to take her place in the annals of the genre’s history. Salander is certainly in my personal Hall of Fame. Her social skills are atrocious and has severe intimacy issues; she is permanently scarred in multiple facets of her life. Piercings and tattoos blanket her extremely thin physique. After I finished the last novel I found myself saddened at Larrson’s death for more than the surface tragedy of the early demise of a burgeoning talent. Salander went with Larrson to the grave. The series is purported to have had a total of ten planned novels, but as readers we must settle with a mere three Salander-Blomkvist adventures. Don’t let this dissuade you from reading, however. The third novel ties up most loose ends in the fashion of a true trilogy.
“Dragon Tattoo” has a number of intriguing elements. The possible crime involving Harriet Vanger could only have been perpetrated by a select group. The Vanger estate is located on an island, and on the fateful day the island was closed due to a traffic accident. I found this fascinating, as Blomkvist is forced to pry into the lives of an extended old-money family with no grasp as to who he can trust. Henrik has already done a colossal amount of research, so Blomkvist can skip the preliminary investigating and dive into the dilemma. A journalist, not a policeman or a detective, Blomkvist is not bound by conventional techniques and procedure.
The series is a phenomenal success, and as such I had high expectations which I was forced to temper a short ways into the book. For one, the Vanger family is entirely too extensive. I understand that the intention was to expound on the considerable breadth of the Vanger estate and its members, all of whom are part owners of the Vanger corporation. The sea of names also serves to make clear the Herculean task asked of Blomkvist, as the supposed perpetrator could be any one of the people involved. But there are ways to accomplish this without bogging readers down. The publishers included a family tree before the text, but in the case of “Dragon Tattoo” it shouldn’t be necessary. A number of characters could be combined or cut from the text without sending a single ripple through the arc of the plot. Cecilia Vanger in particular (don’t worry, no spoilers) is present in a number of scenes and is someone that Mikael is consistently in contact with. Her role is filled by at least two other characters, and I can’t seem to think of a single reason why she exists.
The first 100 pages are tedious and slow, as is the conclusion. The middle makes the novel worthwhile, but it boggles my mind that the formalities of the opening pages couldn’t be summated into a single, brief chapter. Mind you, I didn’t mind the opening as much as many people I have talked to, but simple edits would have done the book a great service.
I was given valuable advice prior to my reading of “Dragon Tattoo” which opened the door for a mostly painless experience. First, any time a Vanger is presented, make a mental note. They’re important. Remember the name and his or her relations to the rest of the Vangers. This saved me the time of flipping back and forth to the afore-mentioned family tree, though I recommend dog-earring it (Note: This is likely the only time you will find me advocating the defamation of a book. It’s worth it.). Second, power through the opening pages. The opening isn’t like pulling teeth, it simply doesn’t match the pace of the rest of the story. My personal rule is that I will give anything 100 pages before I set it aside. Throw this rule out; it doesn’t apply to “Dragon Tattoo.” Give Larrson 250- he’ll earn it.
I flew through the considerably long book in just over 24 hours, and I doubt I’ve ever critiqued a text that I enjoyed as extensively as this one. I read “Dragon Tattoo” while at the Booksellers Expo of America in New York, and it had me turning the pages until after 3:30 A.M. I was walking around the expo nose-to-spine with Larrson’s story. It grips and hooks, as long as you afford enough time for the lure to be cast. But the flaws are plentiful and apparent. If you’re the reader for whom mechanics are everything, avoid “Dragon Tattoo.” For everyone else, make the trip to Katy Budget Books or buy it online through the store website via Google eBooks. There is still plenty of time to read it before the December 21st blockbuster movie. “Dragon Tattoo” might not be the work of a literary virtuoso, but Larrson might have reached that level, given the chance. For a debut novel, Larrson certainly outshines plenty of polished professionals.