The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Larsson takes what seemed at the outset to be a juicy locked-island-mystery plot and turns it first into an insightful family saga and then into a scathing political and social commentary that forces us to think about such a wide variety of themes and aspects that we normally refuse to accept as part of society. It takes an author like Larsson to shove it in our faces in all its stinking ugliness for us to stop turning the blind eye at these atrocities.
Do not mistake this for a mere fictional work with imagined crimes. It has firm foundations in reality. In my opinion, the whole plot is a thin wrap-sheet thrown around the brutal truths of real crimes. Larsson has extensive knowledge of the most heinous crimes and he has written extensively about them for his entire professional career. This expertise shows through in his description of such acts of unimaginable cruelty with an almost nonchalant objectivity, with a careless leaving out of the gory details and focus on the trivial aspects of the act that sends shivers down our spine.
Larsson uses his investigative style of presentation and his two main characters and an extremely dysfunctional family to work in an amazing variety of potent themes into his first book. I cannot wait to see what he’ll do in the second one. Some of the themes explored in detail are:
This is not part of the plot but Larsson seems to be sending out a warning about how deadly information can be in the wrong hands and how easily accessible any private info about you stored in digital form is. You are exposed and absolutely naked to a determined digital assault and there is nothing you can do about it. Of course in the novel it is never misused but the threat is always hanging in the air – if an uneducated girl and her friends can get the most private information about the most protected individuals in the country, what kind of a world are we heading into? And is it really bad? Food for thought…
No matter which way you look at it, this work will have to defined as one of the most wrathful outcries against society’s attitude towards women. The entire story is about the enormous acts of cruelty committed against women and the absolute indifference to it by everyone who is supposed to care. It is also about the different responses that these women have in such an uncaring society. Which brings us to the most important theme of the book in my opinion:
Morality and Allocation of Blame
The book is truly about three paths that a victim can take after an abused childhood.
One of the characters suffers abuse and decides to become an abuser himself and embrace it as a fact of life
The second one suffers abuse and decides to run away from that life and live faraway and sheltered. No attempt is made to punish the abuser or to report it.
The third character too suffers abuse but decides to confront it and return it with a vengeance. No violence or abuse is tolerated and any reaction is justified for this character.
The fourth is the invisible character of what we expect a person to do in such a situation – report it, seek help from the authorities who are supposed to protect them. The society around and the grim reality that prompted the book gives the outcome to this course of action.
Now the key point to me was that Larsson does not condemn any of them – he makes different characters speak in defense for each of these responses and lets us wonder about which course can ever be called right. in the end he manages to condemn both the society as a whole as well as us, the individuals who allow the society to be so. A caricature of morality.
Law, Crime & BDSM
Larsson’s extensive knowledge about the worst forms of crime and the procedure of law allows him to give a gruesome reality to what we usually consider to be just sadistic fiction. He convinces the reader that it is real and all around us if we only cared enough to look.
Nazi History, Military Training, Religious Extremism & Apologetics
These are also touched upon at various points in the books and provides a background, especially of Swedish Nazism, from which the excuses for all the real crimes in the books could spring from.
Journalistic (Professional) Ethics
This too is quite obviously one of the favorite topics for Larsson and it forms a strong undercurrent throughout the book and comes to a head with the firm conviction of the lead character that he is finally a corrupt journalist. He is reassured that he has done the right thing by choosing between being a professional and being a human being. But we as the readers, the character and the author, all know that this is not remotely convincing. Justice was meted out selectively and subjectively in the end and even though it feels right, that is only because of personal knowledge. is that enough?
Financial & Economic Commentary, Industrial Espionage and Hacker-lore
Large parts of the book goes into great detail about industrial politics and machinations and is sometimes quite boring to be frank, but it adds credence to the plot and has to be borne out. The elaborate hacker methodology too is a drag at times but remains mostly interesting and strangely disturbing.
The financial interplay and the economic commentary sounds a bit forced but Larsson still manages to give out some forceful ideas such as:
“We’re experiencing the largest single drop in the history of the Swedish stock exchange—and you think that’s nonsense?”
“You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skövde.
That’s the Swedish economy, and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago.” He paused for effect and took a sip of water.
“The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy.”
“So you’re saying that it doesn’t matter if the Stock Exchange drops like a rock?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” Blomkvist said in a voice so weary and resigned that he sounded like some sort of oracle.
His words would be quoted many times over the following year.
Family & Incest
What it means to be a family and the inevitable nature of family relationships too seem to haunt Larsson and he gives free reign to his fears and troubles about family life, incest, indifference and corporate life affecting personal relations. He also asks the question of whether we can ever truly judge a person based on corporate success without knowing his relationships with his family and his personal life.
There are probably other important ones that I have failed to mention but these were, in my opinion, the things that the book was meant to shine a torchlight on.
On The Characters
I found this in an interview with Larsson and it captures the enigma of the two amazing main characters:
“I considered Pippi Longstocking,” he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, a girl so strong she could carry a horse. “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.” That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.
But he felt Salander needed a counterweight if his story was to be a success. Once again he turned to one of Lindgren’s characters, this time to Kalle Blomkvist, boy detective. “Only now he’s 45 years old and a journalist [called Mikael Blomkvist]. An altruistic know-it-all who publishes a magazine called Millennium. The story will revolve around the people who work there.”
While I loved the book wholeheartedly, I still had a few unfavorable impressions:
Some of the side characters are a bit sketchy not fully realized. Especially some of the family members including Martin who did not get a gradual transition that a character like him deserved fo maximum impact.
The stylistically simple nature of the chapters and the book structure too takes away from the sophistication of the detail and plot. A bit more variety in the technique than a simple shift of perspective would have been better and less obvious. Also the tension eases off at all the wrong moments, primarily because Larsson has given a portent of things to come later too easily for a whodunnit. The pace too is not consistent and we spend a lot of time seeing scenery and almost every chapter opens with making coffee or with long uneventful walks.
In the end, the reader does not get the pleasure of a proper whodunnit as there were no hidden clues spread across the book and in spite of homages throughout the book to masters of crime and mystery fiction, Larsson at some point decided to make his book not fit the thrill of that genre and moved instead to far more sinister territories.
The last section of the book felt much like a filler and had way too much detail and predictable action and could just as well have been left to the reader’s imagination. The long winding down has put me off from any tension that would have made me run for the second book immediately. Now that everything is calm and quiet in the Millennium world, I too can take an idyllic break from it all…
A good editor and more time to polish would have made this into a definite modern masterpiece, which I strongly suspect it to be already. But in spite of the flaws we still have a masterpiece and some unforgettable characters that will stay with us for a long time to come.
One Final Note:
All the villains have a Windows PC and all the heroes have an Apple notebook. Splendid thing to use in a book about corporate morality among other things. I think this tipped the scales for the book to be a bestseller!
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