The first book of the outrageously popular Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo proved up to the task of overcoming my automatic bias against "popular books". For as long as I can remember, I've always shied away from reading books that have ever been in the center of the public's eye. The Da Vinci Code, Hunger Games, Middlesex, The Kite Runner... These are examples of books that I've avoided like the plague, all out of the assumption that the general public is terrible at judging what a good book is. Elitist, I know. I can't help it. It comes from a long history of reading.
Anyways, this is why it was a rare event for me to even consider The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, much less read the damn thing. And, despite my reluctance and foot-dragging, I did enjoy the book immensely. It blends mystery, thriller, and crime novel together seamlessly into an interesting and rare setting: that of Swedish big business, journalism, and well-to-do family organizations.
Unraveling the Swedish Countryside
The first thing that immediately becomes clear is that this book was written quite well. This is especially remarkable when you consider the fact that it had to get translated from Swedish to English first, and yet still manages to retain an addictive power. Stieg Larsson discovers that perfect balance between feeding the reader details while keeping the events simple and well-paced. If you had told me before reading this that I would be excited to learn about Swedish business practices and obscure family history, I would have laughed in your face. But, somehow, the author manages to adroitly pull this off.
Another aspect of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that caught my fancy were the two main characters, Salander and Blomkvist. These two individuals are as different as can be; Salander is a very young woman who is perhaps most easily described as a very intense, smart, determined, goth hacker with issues; Blomkvist is a man in his forties who is an insatiably curious, kind, journalist/ladies man whose reputation is soiled from the very beginning of the novel. These two end up working together to uncover one of the darkest family secrets I've ever seen in a story, and they do it through an exciting mix of journalistic deductive skills and cold, logical analysis that keeps you incredibly interested as each fact passes before your eyes.
The Mother of All Mysteries... Or is it?
My main complaint is, after I thought about it, maybe a little unfair. In essence, I found it irritating that, unless I'm mistaken, it is completely impossible to try and figure out for yourself how the story is going to end. In my experience, the ideal mystery is one where you have the opportunity to look at the facts yourself, have the chance to solve it with your own reasoning, and become incredibly shocked when the conclusion turns out to be right before your eyes; you just failed to see it. Usually this is accomplished by a clever placing of hints or reveals throughout the story that individually have no bearing but altogether paint the picture entire. To my eyes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to do this. I don't see how anyone could have deduced the truth to this mystery; the conclusion was definitely surprising but, as I thought about it, I don't think that there is any possibility that someone could have successfully trailed the hints or facts that led to it. The reveals were tied to what Blomkvist and Salander told the audience; instead of an active thinker, I became a passive listener. I could not look to hints or details in the description or setting; instead, I became railroaded into the chain of discovery revealed by the dynamic duo.
But I think that this complaint may be unfair. After all, I'm sure there are readers out there who don't really care about having the opportunity to deduce a mystery for themselves. Although I find that to be a rather strange concept... Isn't that the point of a mystery? Anyways I digress.
Overall, I did very much enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The details of the Vanger family, the intricacies of the characters, and the pace that quickens from beginning to end makes this one hell of a mystery. I wish that I had had more opportunity to think for myself as to how it could have ended, but this nonetheless did not hold me back from enjoying the story.
One final oddity I wanted to point out is that the author appears obsessed with sex, but in the most peculiar way. I really don't care whether there is sex in a novel or not, but the way that Stieg Larsson approached it made me raise an eyebrow. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, sex is everywhere. Characters sleep together seemingly just because they can and it never has much, if any, impact within the story. Weirdest of all, the author is so matter of fact about it, and very rarely goes into detail as to what occurs during the act itself. It is as if his editor told him to, "Put more sex in your book!" and Larsson decided to flip him off by putting it everywhere but doing nothing with it. I found this highly unusual, but ended up more amused by it than irritated.
In the end, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is well worth reading but, despite its near-universal acclaim, is not without its flaws. I suppose I can hop on the bandwagon of recommending it to others. Just this once...