The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is a crime thriller novel about a disgraced journalist and an autistic computer hacker who work together to unravel the mystery of a 16 year old girl’s disappearance four decades ago.
I hardly ever read thrillers or crime novels; they’re not really my cup of tea. I gave this one a shot, though, because I’ve been making a deliberate choice to read more books outside the fantasy genre. I figured starting out with a popular book that had an interesting female lead character would be a good choice. Sad to say, I was disappointed and could not finish the book.
The most obvious problem is the pace of the book. It has a very slow start, and when it does pick it up it’s only for a brief moment; then it goes back to being slow again. The long stretches of dullness interspersed with brief, tense action scenes tried my patience past the breaking point. The best bits are all near the end — and they are admittedly very gripping and very satisfying, but they come too late for me.
I might have stuck it out (because yes, I did give up and skim the last 70% of the book) if the writing style hadn’t been so dry. The book is surprisingly unemotional. The characters have no strong feelings, no humor, no charisma, and even their dialogue all sounds exactly the same — with one notable exception, which I’ll cover below. Even the scenes of violence and rape lack emotion — which, actually, may have been a good thing because that made reading them more tolerable than they otherwise would have been. I’d still recommend anyone sensitive to such subject matter to stay away, however.
Most of the book is given over to exposition; even the dialogue is info-dumpy and has little conflict. There’s tons of trivial, mundane detail, all described in the driest prose imaginable. I wonder if this is perhaps a translation problem? Hard to say.
As far as I can tell, Lisbeth Salander, the autistic computer hacker, is the sole reason why this series is so well-loved. She’s a fascinating character — bisexual, androgynous, brilliant, ferocious, rebellious, antisocial, yet also righteous and principled, with a dark and troubled past. I am told that crime novels such as these never have characters this unorthodox and this complex (based on my limited experience with the genre I would agree that yes, character is not its strong suit). I liked Lisbeth, and was interested in her, but you have to get about 30% through the book before she even starts being relevant. I wonder if perhaps the author tried a little too hard with her character and ended up fetish-izing her — but that’s a tangly topic for another day, I think.
One thing I will say for the book is that the author is quite clearly a feminist, or at least was trying to be one. He writes about sexual exploitation and abuse not as a cheap way to shock and thrill the reader, but to point out how common and horrific and disgusting it is. And he doesn’t render the female victims as powerless damsels waiting for a man to come and save them from other men: on the contrary, his female characters help save each other, and Lisbeth is more than capable of defending herself, wreaking her own vengeance, and saving her male partner from the bad guys. Kudos also for showing victims of sexual assault as moving on with their lives and not being hopelessly broken because of it.
I’m glad I tried the book, but I’m not going to attempt the rest of the series, and if this is the best the crime thriller genre has to offer, I think I’ll stick to fantasy. I’m rating it 2 stars.