Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Being a translator isn’t easy—the writer is credited with the good stuff while flaws are blamed on the translator. Many reviews say The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is poorly written or poorly translated. It’s hard to tell which, and I’m going to set aside this question since I can’t read Swedish. The plot is solidly constructed and paced, but suffers when severed from its original setting, culture, and language as the translator makes no effort to bridge the gap for a foreign audience. Example: “Norsjö was a small town with one main street, appropriately enough called Storgatan, that ran through the whole community.” (282) Why is this an appropriate name? I assumed (correctly) that Storgatan meant “Main,” but I’d been hoping for a pun and looked it up just in case. The translation runs unevenly; it uses plain, simple language with frequent cliches, before tossing in an oddball word that no native speaker would include: “Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.” (134) Context gives this away, but it reads unnaturally in context.

Reviewers who write off The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo do so because it’s the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster, a dark, beach read. But if you approach it like a good whodunnit, then you’re less likely to be disappointed. As a mystery, this book is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Many writers, especially first-time writers, have mammoth problems with pacing. They don’t know how to control the flow of information so that the teensy clue on page one helps solve the mystery on page 500 without giving it away.

Maybe it’s that Larsson’s poker face has been filtered through a less-than-perfect translator, but he’s got a very good one. This is partially accomplished by having a large cast and ample opportunities to misdirect. The core mystery of the novel is the disappearance of Harriet Vanger. Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist, is brought in by Harriet’s great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, as a pair of fresh eyes to identify the murderer 40 years after the fact. Harriet disappeared from an island on a day when a tanker accident blocked the only road to the island so there is a limited number of suspects, but the Vanger clan is large and filled with suspicious people. When beginning the book, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of backstories of so many family members. Don’t sweat it. There’s a family tree in the book’s early pages, but it’s not worth consulting until you’re partly in and the names take on some familiarity. Larsson does a commendable job of clarifying who everyone is when they come up in conversation.

The mystery excels, but the characters are less than excellent. Mikael Blomkvist is an adequate protagonist. He’s a capable everyman with the perplexing feature that women can’t keep out of his bed. This doesn’t count as a spoiler, because when the first girl pushes herself into his bed, it’s so awkward that you’ll have a sinking feeling it’ll be repeated. The love scenes are bizarre, impersonally written with trite pillow talk. One positive to Blomkvist is that he isn’t Sherlock Holmes and cannot solve the case via invisible clues. Every aspect of the case is written in brutal detail, but this doesn’t feel tedious, just the opposite as it gives the reader the illusion of playing along.

The titular girl with the dragon tattoo is Lisbeth Salander. She’s a world-class hacker with a sketchy past that has led her to be declared mentally incompetent. She assists Blomkvist in his research and the best portions of the book are those in which they gradually become friends. Salander is extremely private and withdrawn, that she slowly warms to Blomkvist is the only character development in the book.

No other characters are worth mentioning. Because there are so many periphery characters, none are developed beyond their purpose in the plot and their motivations are neatly summarized in the paragraphs of backstory that follow their name. Unlike in the later books in the series, these backstories aren’t a trial to read. Because the mystery drives this story, the backstories are presented through Blomkvist’s perusal of the case files and every detail seems as though it might be relevant later.

The original Swedish title for this book translates as: Men Who Hate Women. When Larsson was 15, he witnessed a gang rape and never forgave himself for being unable to help the girl. That his villains be sexual sadists who receive their comeuppance feels like his attempt to redress this while also raising awareness about violence against women. I would never fault anyone for raising such awareness, but his intentions muddy his writing. When Salander is raped, the reader is repeatedly assured that she isn’t the kind of girl to let it go unpunished. Her swift comeuppance: she tasers the guy, ties him up, sodomizes him, and tattoos his stomach: “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist.” In crime fiction, the suspense comes from the reader’s fear that the awful villain will commit the awful deed and escape retribution. In Larsson’s books, there is no such suspense. Violent villains will be violently punished no matter how improbable the string of occurrences necessary to bring about punishment. Book 2 ends with a real humdinger of improbability. His villains all share one aspect: They hate women. Because this represents the ultimate evil and baseness in human nature to Larsson, his villains need no other motivation. Unfortunately, they are interchangeable with one another, predictably infuriating, and overly simple.

On that note, this novel can stand alone despite it being the first of three. The final scene that resolves the financial affair that kicks off the novel seems really, really cheesy as the whole mess is speedily fixed with an enormous bow on top. Rather than letting this detract from the end of the novel, view it as a quick set-up for the sequel and let it go.

Overall: 4.0 (out of 5.0) I read this book in a day. It’s difficult to put down once the mystery begins. Don’t overanalyze the writing—it’s the pacing and the journey that’s brilliant here, not the execution. (Read at least until Blomkvist meets Vanger; the financial stuff at the beginning is kind of dull. Really dull.)

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