THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, By Stieg Larsson

This is the book series I have heard everyone mention but no one describe. It appears to be popular, but I have never found out why. After having read it myself, I think I can explain both the reason it is loved as well as the reason people haven’t said why.

For those who don’t know, Stieg Larsson is Swedish – or rather, was, since he died in 2004. His book was translated to the English by Reg Keeland. There are a number of editorial issues I noticed with this book, and I’m sure many of them are in part due to the fact that I was reading a translation rather than the original. (That being said, though, I must interrupt myself here and say that the book was copy edited superbly, and I, as one of the strictest editors I know, was hard put to find a grammatical or stylistic mistake. Rather, the editorial issues I found are developmental in nature.) For instance, the transitions are often less than smooth, especially when transitioning to a flashback. The use of past tense versus past perfect is, in fact, imperfect, and I am confident this is a translation issue, since tense is handled so differently in different languages. There are times that the author flashed back, but it took me a paragraph or two of confusion to realize it.

There are one or two other developmental issues  I would’ve focused on had I been the editor of this book. Larsson uses some narrative tools that I would’ve discouraged. To start with, he employs an unnecessary prologue. I can stomach prologues if I can find a good reason for them. The types of prologues I usually enjoy take place far, far in advance of the beginning of the chronological timeline of the book (like decades, or even centuries). The prologue to this book, however, begins on November 1, present day, and chapter 1 begins at the same time – just with a different character. Therefore, the prologue should’ve been scrapped and made its own chapter – perhaps chapter 1, even.

As for chapter 1 itself, its existence is the main reason I almost put the book down without continuing. I think I was a good 50 pages in before I decided to commit to the whole book. That’s how slow a start this novel gets off to. I say that not to discourage anyone from reading it but rather to encourage you to keep going, if you feel yourself stuck in those first few pages. The author makes a serious mistake of delving too deeply into a minor character who does not even become a character of interest until the last 90 pages of the book. For 12 pages in the beginning, Larsson describes in detail the shady legal, political, and financial activities of this character who is a corporate scumbag, in order to provide context for why one of the main characters is in the position he is. The problem is, instead of summarizing and leaving the reader with the basic impression that this guy is a bad dude, Larsson goes into long, confusing, unnecessary descriptions of this character’s activities so that the only audience left interested by the end of chapter 1 is likely made up of corporate or financial lawyers or maybe investigative journalists. And perhaps they are Larsson’s target market, in which case I suppose he nailed it. But I know there are ordinary readers who have missed out on a fantastic novel because Larsson lost them in those first few pages (I know one such reader personally, in fact).

But, if you can get past chapter 1, then you may have as much trouble putting this book down as I did. My conjecture is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is intriguing for Americans first and foremost because it’s so entirely different from what we’re used to. This novel is very European, by which I mean that it is rather mature for U.S. standards and more liberal than we’re usually willing to be comfortable with, in many arenas but most especially in descriptions of both positive and negative sexual interactions.

The characters of this book are edgy. The author is open and unapologetic with his references to sexual interaction, which again points back to that European flair I love so much. Inasmuch as I don’t really agree with the characters’ worldviews on sexuality (multiple partners, sex in and out of wedlock, no commitment, casual is the key), I found it easy to forgive these actions and sympathize with the characters anyway, if for no other reason than that I appreciate reading a text that is unafraid to address the subject. (Side note: This is actually something I appreciated about Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife too, though on a smaller scale.)

In some ways, even though the sex is treated more casually and openly than it usually is in any American literature (“smutty” novels notwithstanding), the descriptions feel less offensive and less like they are breaking some sort of decorous rule. Perhaps that’s because the author knows that (in Europe, anyway) he isn’t. Or maybe it’s  because there are no secrets about who is having sex with whom, and there is really no judgment about it either. (I suppose that is because there are no Christians in this novel.)

But on the other hand, Stieg Larsson also (unlike American authors) doesn’t feel the need to describe positive sexual encounters in detail (the definition of positive being consensual, in this context; for there are plenty of descriptions of non-consensual sex as well). There are no awkward descriptions involving throbbing or quivering or thrusting. I think this is where American authors fail, and fail miserably. What is the American obsession with describing sex in such detail? We’re adults. Most of us have experienced it firsthand. There is really no need to attempt a raunchy description.

Without giving away too much of the plot detail, I will say that I think Larsson is brilliant in setting up the contrast of positive, consensual sexual encounters against a counter plot of a series of sex crimes. I think this was absolutely intentional, and I think it brings the two types of interaction into sharp (sometimes painful, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes enraging) contrast, even functioning as a subtle and more convincing argument for both commitment and abstinence than any church program I’ve been subjected to. Unfortunately, because of its inability to get past the surface when it comes to societal issues, the church would never be able to acknowledge or understand this particular element.

Moving away from sex but sticking with cultural stigmas, this book is set in 2002, I think. This detail is never stated explicitly, but there is a 9/11 reference in there that made me think it was supposed to be 2002. It was first published in 2005 in Sweden, not making its way to an English version until 2008/2009. And, since I didn’t pick it up until the end of 2011, that means I have read it almost a decade after the intended setting. So it is to be expected that some of the pop-culture references are a little outdated, and some of them went straight over my American head anyway.

In addition, the title itself seemed outdated. As I got further into the book, I discovered that the significance behind the title is that it is a cultural oddity for this girl to have as many tattoos as she does. Again, in late 2011 (now early 2012), it just is not – at least in the United States – unusual for anyone (young or old, male or female) to have six or more tattoos. I kept getting momentarily confused and having to remind myself that this was 2002 Sweden, not 2012 United States.

It gave me a dose of culture shock, in a sense, to realize how quickly and drastically things change. In my post-adolescent life, tattoos have always been trendy. If I read this book 20 or 30 years from now, it might be easier to say, “Oh yeah, this was written back before it was popular or common to have tattoos.” But to be within the same decade and experience such a difference feels a little unsettling. However, I suppose it’s just incontrovertible proof that trends, culture, and society change as time marches unceasingly on.

After I finished the book, I looked up a little about the history of the book, the author, and the translation, and I learned that the Swedish title of the book translates to: Men Who Hate Women. Though I’m not entirely impressed with such a title, it does completely fit the narrative and progression of the plot and is even a repeated phrase by one of the characters (incidentally, the girl with the dragon tattoo, as it turns out). So that is an interesting consideration.

I will say that, as far as suspense and mysterious intrigue go, this novel utilizes chapter breaks perfectly. In contrast to many mysteries or action novels, the chapter itself is used as the tool for narrative propulsion, rather than the chapter break. I dislike authors who use chapter breaks as opportunities for cliffhangers (Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games noteriety, is the most recent abuser I have encountered of this technique). Instead, Larsson uses visual breaks within the chapters to switch scenes and point of view, rather than ending the chapter smack dab in the middle of a scene or sequence of action. Therefore, when the end of a page-turning chapter is reached, I as the reader am able to take a breather, put in the bookmark and count to ten, recharge, collect my thoughts, and prepare for the next 10 or 15 pages of action. As an attempted novelist myself, this is how I use chapter breaks too. However, perhaps this confession only reveals where my bias lies and not which technique actually belies the superior skill. Whatever the case, it’s clear I have a preference, and Stieg Larsson caters to that preference masterfully.

Overall, despite the slow start, I greatly enjoyed my read of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I am eager to start the second book. However, I would recommend this book only sparingly and in particular circles, and there are definitely certain people I would specifically and actively encourage not to read it. I suspect the reason these books are popular and the reason people don’t explain why has a lot to do with the elements I have discussed without apology in this review. Americans are afraid to say they like the subject of sex in literature, for fear they will be labeled sexual deviants, and Christian Americans are just plain afraid to admit they even know what sex is. Therefore, proceed with caution, and if you have found any seeds of discomfort or discontent in my review, then I strongly urge you not to pick up the book. If you haven’t, go check it out tomorrow and enjoy!

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, By Stieg Larsson

  1. I haven’t read any of this series yet and I’m still not entirely sure if I want to. Most people say the same as you – that’s it’s pretty slow to start. You’ve been the first person I’ve really had go into detail about the book (without ruining anything) so I really didn’t know anything about it beyond the fact it seems wildly popular and people seem to be going crazy for the movie right now.

    We’ll see if I decide to pick it up or not. You’ve definitely peaked my interest a little more than before.

    • Jess,

      I can’t claim to know anything about the movie, but the book was so, so good. It’s 500+ pages and I zipped through it in just a couple of days. After getting past the first chapter, of course.

  2. Katie Dupre

    I liked the book, but after seeing the film version (The Swedish version. I haven’t seen the one with Daniel Craig yet.), I have put this in my “go see the movie, it is just as good as the book” category. The movie, I felt, did a good job of cutting out all the extraneous tangents that weren’t totally pertinent to the main plot. Which helped me enjoy the story more in this case. The prose just wasn’t enough to keep me hanging in there for the pure joy of reading.

    • Katie,

      Interesting to hear you say that. While I have heard nothing about the Swedish version of the movie, I have not heard the most positive things about the American version. So maybe I will check out the Swedish version first. And yes, you’ve touched on an issue I didn’t have room to get to in the review – the inclusion of so much information that wasn’t important. He goes on some irritating tangents about socio-economic structures in Sweden, socio-political issues, and other random, niche-y type subjects, some of which had the potential to be mildly interesting but all of which do not do much for the pace of a mystery novel. So I’m glad the movie cut that stuff out. I would call that a necessary and wise decision.

  3. Good review, as always. We’ll see if I decide to read it, but I won’t lie and say I’m not intrigued. I really didn’t know this about you and chapter endings. Or prologues (maybe I guess I did; now I don’t know). I do agree with you about the prologue thing, but I’m not sure I’m following you about what exactly a chapter ending *should* consist of or where–if anywhere–a cliffhanger should be placed. Please clarify if possible. Much thanks.

    • Thanks, Reese. I am not at all surprised that you’re not intrigued. I didn’t write this review to garner interest in the book, as I have attempted to do in some of my other reviews (like *Unbroken*, for example). I just wanted to address a couple of things about the book and series itself, and I think I accomplished that. I think I made this clear, but I want to be very selective about whom I recommend this book to, so I didn’t want to write something that would sound intriguing to anyone who read it, which I do think could easily have been done (and probably has been done by others). If you ever do decide to pick it up, I will of course be interested to know what you think.

      Okay, I knew I should’ve spent more time elaborating on the chapter thing. In my mind, a chapter should be a full scene (or series of scenes, depending on how long you want your chapter to be). The scene should begin, climax, and end in the same chapter, at least as much as is possible within the larger plot narrative. There will still be big-picture issues unresolved (at least I hope, or you have no business writing a novel). But, in general, when a chapter ends, it should be because the scene (or series of scenes) has come to a satisfactory conclusion. For instance, Suzanne Collins ends chapters almost in the middle of conversations. Someone would shoot at someone, and while the arrow whizzes through the air toward the character in question, BAM – the chapter ends, without the reader knowing whether the arrow hits its target.

      The way Stieg Larsson does this better is that he truncates a scene on a note of suspense, but then there is a clear scene break (XXXXX if you’re using Tate language), and the point of view switches, or the setting switches, or whatever. But, before the chapter ends, that truncated, suspense-inducing scene is picked up again (via the use of another scene break) and brought to a satisfactory conclusion, meaning you find out who gets shot or run over or raped or whatever (I promise those are just examples, not spoilers) before the chapter closes. Does that make sense?

      Do you remember from reading my novel that I always ended conversations, tied up the action of the scene, etc., before moving on to the next chapter so that the next chapter could be a reasonably fresh beginning? That’s what I’m talking about.

      • Haha. I think you misunderstood. That, or I didn’t write that well. (Probably a little of both.) I meant I won’t lie and say that I am not intrigued as in, I won’t lie and tell you that I am not, NOT interested. As in, I AM interested. Possibly more interested than I was before I read this review, but at least the same amount. Full level of interest has yet to be determined ;)

        Also, thank you for your clarification on the chapter thing. That makes much more sense, and I’m inclined to agree with you for the most part. I also think this could be seen in the way you write your journal/diary entries, no? But yes, I believe I remember this from your novel.

        • Oops, sorry. Your sentence was clear enough. I just misread it, based on the conversations we had already had about the book, outside of this blog. I get it now. You’re semi-interested in the book. Well, good. Let me know what you decide about reading it. :)

  4. b longfellow

    From those of us who have heard the buzz about TGWDT but none of the reason for it, thank you. It’s always nice to pick up a book with at least some idea what to expect. In some cases, this can even help a reader read with greater comprehension, and I think your review will make this possible.

    Particularly enjoyed your structural and grammatical analyses; I’m actually interested in how my perspective on verb tense may agree or differ with yours.

    I can’t help but add a chapter break manipulator to your examples: Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, in each of the seventy-something chapters. I guess I’m okay with it unless I’m looking for a spot to stop and set the book down. Then it is quite annoying and probably has lead to my tardiness at sundry appointments.

    Regarding prologues, what do you think about using them to set up flashbacks or to provide broad contextual settings? I briefly searched my shelves and found two books with prologues. One of them (Speaker for the Dead) provides general historical context before the first chapter begins in a specific time and place, and the other (One True Thing) sets up a flashback and builds suspense by saying, Here’s why I’m in jail. Chapter one begins the narrative events that lead up to imprisonment.

    Nice work.

    • LF,

      Thanks. Your words are kind and encouraging, as usual. When you say your perspective on verb tense, are you referring to the rough transitions I mentioned and do you mean what your perspective would be after reading it yourself? If that’s what you mean, then yes, I’d be interested to know whether you agree with me.

      Dan Brown is a good example of someone who writes for an audience rather than himself; thus, the chapter-break manipulation tactic. Good example. I’m NOT okay with it, for the reasons I mentioned, as well as the whole finding-a-spot-to-put-the-book-down reason that you mention. Also, nice use of sundry. :)

      For your first prologue example, yes. That is a good use of a prologue: Historical context that is not directly related but does have indirect implications for influencing the story in question. Your second example, after reading Stieg Larsson, I’m going to deny as a good use of a prologue because of how Stieg Larsson addresses this same issue. In GWDT, another suspense technique Larsson uses that I didn’t feel I had room to discuss in my post is the technique of beginning a chapter with a statement of what ends up happening (e.g., “The mystery was solved,” or, “Another murder occurred,” or, “I was in a high-speed chase,” etc.). And then, the rest of the chapter is devoted to unfolding the details of the order of events that actually led up to that end result. This second prologue example you’ve given does just that, except instead of doing it on a small scale, within a chapter beginning, it’s doing it with the whole book and that is why the prologue is used. I prefer Larsson’s small scale of doing it rather than the large scale version. Does that make sense?

      Thank you again for your insightful comment, your compliments, and your challenges. I enjoy these discussions.

  5. I’m interested to hear what you think of the next two if you decide to read them… even as a layperson I can tell that the translation on the two successive books was far superior. Also, from a pure plot point of view, he reveals all of Salander’s backstory, which is quite gratifying!

    • Bron, I’ll definitely be reading the next two. Just not sure when I’ll get to them. Hopefully quite soon! I’m glad to know both things you mentioned, about the superior translation as well as Salander’s back story being revealed. I’ve been quite curious about that!

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  7. So I just finished the book and got online to reread your review. I agree with everything you wrote and feel that you put together a superb post. (I might have already said it in my original comment, but it’s worth repeating.) As far as the sex (in the book) went, thanks to a few warnings (like this one), I was prepared for it, and overall it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I’m planning on writing a review myself, so I’ll leave it at that for now! I would be interested, however, to read a subsequent review from you of the next two books in the series. I know you’ve read them, though it might be too belated at this point to put together coherent thoughts on the topic. Something to consider, in any case. Call it a request from a reader, if you will ;)

    -R

    • Thanks for the follow-up comment! I am glad you decided to ignore my warning and that it turned out well. I admit, I was nervous when you told me you were reading it!

      I am not going to write reviews of the other two books. For one thing, it’s now been too long since I read them for me to be able to put together anything that is worthwhile. And also, there’s a reason I didn’t review them to begin with. I was frustrated with where the storyline went and wasn’t AS into them as I was the first. I still enjoyed them and am glad I read them, but in my opinion, the first book of this series hit the jackpot, and the other two I followed because I liked the characters. I also liked the third book better than the second, FYI.

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