Sunday, April 18, 2010

the last book I read

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

Mikael Blomkvist is in a bit of a spot. He's just lost a libel case after publishing what turned out to be unfounded allegations against a prominent Swedish businessman and financier, and consequently Millennium, the magazine he runs (with his colleague and occasional lover Erika Berger) and in which the allegations were published, looks like it may be going down the tubes as well. Also, the loss of the libel case means he's going to have to spend three months in prison pretty imminently.

So when elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger comes to Blomkvist with a proposal, Blomkvist isn't really in a position to refuse. What Vanger wants is for Blomkvist to write a history of the Vanger dynasty. Well, actually, this is just a cover for what Vanger really wants, which is for Blomkvist to investigate the unsolved disappearance of his niece Harriet way back in 1966. Reluctantly, since it will involve several months living up in northern Sweden some hours away from his home in Stockholm, Blomkvist agrees.

In parallel with all this we are introduced to Lisbeth Salander, straight out of the box marked "quirky anti-heroines". Tiny waif-like creature? Check. Tattoos (including the titular dragon)? Check. Bisexual? Check. Murky past of unspecified but vaguely alluded-to horror and abuse? Check. Salander is also a brilliant computer hacker who does freelance work for a firm of security consultants, in which capacity, it turns out, she was hired to do some digging up of information on Blomkvist for Vanger's lawyers before the job offer was made. Eventually Blomkvist and Salander meet, and she agrees to help out with the investigation.

Most of the Vanger dynasty still live on the (fictional) island of Hedeby, which functions as a sort of family compound. And a rum lot some of them are too, especially Harald, Henrik's older brother, with his links to Sweden's murky flirtation with Nazism back in the 1930's, and icy and intimidating matriarch Isabella, wife of Henrik's late nephew Gottfried. The younger generation seem more accommodating - Gottfried's son Martin (brother of Harriet) is now the CEO of the Vanger corporation now that Henrik is in semi-retirement and seems keen to help, and when Blomkvist calls on Harald's daughter Cecilia and she answers the door clad only in a bathrobe it turns out she's happy to be very accommodating indeed, if you know what I mean. You'll have worked out by now that Blomkvist is a bit of a playboy (and pretty clearly a thinly-disguised authorial alter ego) with a typically Scandinavian lack of hang-ups about sex; just to prove the point he starts sleeping with Salander as well just for good measure after she comes to stay on the island with him.

Anyway, the investigation progresses, clues are found, false trails are followed, people turn out to be not all they seem to be, and gradually the solution to the mystery is revealed. I won't spoil it for you, but a gruesome tale of religious mania, misogyny, Nazism, serial killing and incest it is too, complete with the obligatory secret subterranean porn dungeon for the hero to be rescued from in the nick of time as he is about to be buggered to death or something similar.

Nothing I might say about TGWTDT is going to affect its status as a publishing megaphenomenon, at least part of which is down to the poignancy of Larsson dropping dead only a short time after delivering the manuscripts for the first three novels in the series to his publisher (there are rumours that he planned to write up to ten books). The Swedish setting is interestingly quirky as well; it's a bit more exotic than St. Mary Mead, anyway. One certainly might argue that the exotic Arctic setting added a veneer of artiness to films like Insomnia and Let The Right One In that made them seem more interesting than the police procedural/serial killer flick and mildly quirky vampire film they would otherwise respectively have been, and you could probably say the same for this book (and maybe for Henning Mankell's highly-regarded thrillers as well, though I haven't read any of them so I couldn't say).

Which is not to say there's anything wrong with it, just that the overblown praise is a bit much for what is essentially a pretty workmanlike, and occasionally slightly clunkily written (though of course Reg Keeland's translation could be to blame) serial killer thriller. To pick a similar novel for comparison, it's neither as well-written nor as bonkers as Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, for example (though Smilla and Salander's shared quirky skills and up-front sexuality make them first cousins). The ending is oddly constructed as well; once the horrific family secrets are revealed we should really be wrapping things up and getting our coat, but instead we get another 70 pages or so of internal machinations at Millennium and Salander's incomprehensible financial shenanigans in Zurich and the Cayman Islands, the purpose of all of which is to give the crooked financier who got Blomkvist sent to prison right at the beginning his comeuppance. Fine, but it doesn't really compare, excitement-wise, to the revelations that came before (not to mention the porn dungeon stuff).

There is also a disturbing undercurrent of sexual violence against women running through the book (as its original title Män som hatar kvinnor – "Men Who Hate Women") shows more clearly. Whether the slightly unwholesome relish Larsson takes in describing all of this is mitigated by having a Buffy-style ass-kicking heroine as well is a subject of interesting debate.

I'm sounding a bit down on the whole thing there, so just to recap: I wouldn't want you to think that a) I didn't enjoy it and b) I won't be reading the other two - I did, and I'm sure I will. Just, you know, let's all just calm down a bit.

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