You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

When reading a book that has had a lot of hype, there is always the question of whether the book lives up to all the hype. A book must be on the bestseller list for a reason, right? I've heard a lot about Stieg Larsson and his novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I was excited to finally read it.

The book has two main characters. Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist who has just been convicted of libel for a story he wrote about a wealthy financial tycoon. He and his married girlfriend Erika Berger run a financial journal called Millennium that is now in trouble of coming apart due to the libel suit and the advertising drying up. Blomkvist gets an offer from a different wealthy tycoon, Henrik Vanger, who is an elderly retired CEO of the Vanger group. The offer is ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family, but the true goal is to investigate the disappearance of Henrik's great niece Harriet Vanger who vanished from the family island nearly forty years earlier. Blomkvist, who is at the low point of his career, accepts the offer partly because he has little else he can do, and partly because Vanger says that he has valuable information on Wennerstrom, the plaintiff of the libel suit.

The more interesting of the main characters is Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-five year old woman who has a gift for investigations and hacking, despite being a social misfit who is unable to relate to others and a ward of the state. Her distrust of authority, and specifically her refusal to talk to the police, become major points in the story. When her new advocate takes advantage of her, instead of notifying the authorities she takes matters into her own hands and blackmails him. This action looms over the rest of the story as we wonder what else Lisbeth might be capable of. She is clearly outside the mainstream.

Blomkvist studies the case for many months while staying on the Vanger family estate. He becomes friendly (and in one case more so) with some of the Vanger family, and finds that others are hateful. The Vangers have a long and sordid history that includes Nazis. Half of the family hates the other half, and they have to somehow get along enough to manage the family corporation. The history of the family provides the framework for the mystery of Harriet's disappearance; there are many suspects, though most have a sort of alibi since their pictures were taken during an accident on the bridge to the island.

When Blomkvist starts to make progress on the case, Vanger's lawyer calls in Salander to help with the investigation. Blomkvist and Salander soon end up in bed together in an unexciting sex scene. The two of them become a good team, with Blomkvist professional instincts and Salander's street smarts and l33t skills. He seems to take her diffidence (which borders on silent hostility) in stride. She does not know what to make of his sudden appearance or his interest in her life.

As a central character, Blomkvist is a bit too shallow. He is a skilled and driven investigator, which is important to a mystery story, but he seems to have no interests or life outside his work. Family doesn't come into his life. His ex-wife and daughter are only mentioned at the beginning and the end, except when his daughter drops in unexpectedly for to conveniently help with a plot point. I had expected this to develop into something more interesting, perhaps with his daughter being caught up with the same cult, or at least a similar cult, as Harriet, but the daughter disappears into the background and we lose any useful parallels.

Lisbeth is much more interesting, especially given her dark mysterious past (perhaps symbolized by her tattoos) and her unpredictable personality. She certainly takes up good parts of the story, though not enough of it in my opinion. If I were to read the sequels it would be for her. Following and empathizing with a character who is cold and ruthless is difficult, but Larsson pulls it off.

I found the writing to be plain and dull. The dialogue is bland to a fault. The words are all very matter of fact and directed to concluding the plot. The main plot itself is pretty good and unfolds nicely. The events build to a terrifying scene, and then the two detectives proceed to bring the case to a close. But the addition of a hundred pages of denouement which is basically Blomkvist pursuing his revenge on Wennerstrom seems artificial. It's a bit of a false climax after the decades old murder mystery. The two plots work well together, but it feels like the important parts are missing in the last section. The whole is a bit disappointing. B

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