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Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (trade paperback, $14.95)

Surely … surely I can't be the only reader who had difficulty reading this book. I am? Rats.

The first time I tried to read the book was about a year ago, and I read almost three-fourths of it before I finally put it down. And promptly forgot about it. I swear I didn't remember a word of what I read … until I tried to read it yet again last month. Then I kept muttering as I read: I've read this part, I remember that. Remembrance came too late to save me re-reading it again … and bogging down again.

I'm going to announce a spoiler alert later on, because why I stopped deals with events pretty far (three-fourths of the way!) in the book. So, in the meantime, here's more of a traditional review.

I finally finished it and … it was okay. Not great, just okay. The plotting for the main story of Harriet Vanger's disappearance was good, but the characters were distant -- only one character was truly fabulous and fascinating -- and the pacing was uneven.

In contrast to The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, for example, which rapidly advanced the plot (see prior review), Dragon Tattoo took about half the book to set up the premise, and with a total of about 500 pages, that's some set-up. Is it about financial shenanigans, or is it about a waif who is a street-rat genius, or is it about a teenage girl who has been missing for over thirty years? Since we finally find out it is about ALL those things, Larsson must create magic to relate them, and he succeeds pretty well with his plotting. And that is why the book is so large: it is three stories in one.

Larsson's characters are eccentric and hard to fathom. Is it a cultural thing? Is Sweden such an alien spot on our planet that there are few points of correlation between their culture and ours? I love Mankell and Sjowall/Wahloo, so I don't think it's because the book is Swedish. I think it's because Larsson's characters are written without much warmth. The only character for whom this works is Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. She is not warm and fuzzy, and is missing the ability to provide social feedback and cues like other people. Her story is the most fascinating and could have easily been the only story told. Then I would have been happier.

The other main character, Mikael Blomqvist, is a journalist. He is found guilty of libel for being unable to substantiate a magazine article he wrote accusing a big financial mucky-muck of malfeasance. Mikael's reputation is muddied, his magazine is in jeopardy, and he is facing a prison sentence, when he is saved from going completely under by a rich old man with a mystery. Henrik Vanger's teenaged niece, Harriet, vanished more than thirty years ago. He desperately wants to find out what happened to her and wants Mikael to help. As Mikael explores the relationships in Vanger's dysfunctional family, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth, a private investigator and technology geek, to solve the puzzle.

Although Lisbeth has difficulty with simple human responses, the truly anti-social character turns out to be Mikael, whose flighty relationships with quite a few of the women he meets and Lothario mentality is disguised as an enlightened "no strings attached" attitude. He apparently pines for the unattainable Erika Berger, his married business partner and long-time paramour, but it is less pining than self-indulgence.

When Larsson sticks to Lisbeth's story or how Mikael finds fresh clues in a decades-old case, the book is a page-turner. I'm glad I read it. Now I know what the fuss is about, even if I wouldn't accord it quite the same veneration others do.

And, now, why I stopped reading it the first time around:

SPOILER ALERT
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Hero Mikael Blomqvist is a cold, philandering frat boy in a middle-aged man's body. When he is trapped in the torture room by the murderer, all I could think was "yuck"! Not "yuck" with sympathy, just "yuck." When Silence of the Lambs reached the same point, I was enraptured by the story and writing and characters and had to read on. The "yuck" factor was outweighed by the "and then what happened" factor in Thomas Harris's book. Maybe it's the translation, but the tension in Dragon Tattoo just wasn't adequate to sustain the emotional ties to the story of Blomqvist and his antagonist. Sad to say, I didn't care what happened to Mikael, and the killer certainly was no Hannibal Lecter.

Also, who uses the word "anon" in contemporary writing?
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END SPOILER

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