Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder - and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family.

He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history.

But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.’

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in the Millennium series from Stieg Larsson. It is said that one should never judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what I did with this book for several years. Much as I always saw this in the bestseller category in bookstores, judging by the title, I always thought it was going to be a novel under the genre romance (maybe if the Swedish title had been translated word for word – ‘Men who hate women’, it might have attracted my attention). This perception would have continued till I was recently forced by a colleague to start reading the book with it being described as a ‘page-turner’.

The plot has two principal characters – Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist recently convicted for defamation against a leading Swedish investor and Lisbeth Salander, a private detective. The conviction led to Blomkvist having to leave the magazine he founded, and at the same time – receives an offer from the 82-year-old chairman of Vanger Corporation to solve the murder of his niece Harriet – in what was a typical ‘locked room murder situation’ with both the murderer and the victim vanishing without a trace. Blomkvist, at first was not convinced moving up north to a remote island north of Stockholm but agrees as he wanted a break and also how Vanger offered a compensation more than sufficient to cover the compensation he needed to pay as libel damages. Lisbeth Salander on the other side, is working as a private detective in a security services firm and while she does not have any formal training regarding the same, proves to be extremely accurate and detailed in her analysis. The only connection between Blomkvist and Salander to begin with was the latter doing a background check on the former for a client of her firm. 

The book is almost 560 pages long and it never felt that way owing to both, the pace and the manner in which the story was narrated. The plot fell in place one after the other – Blomkvist’s conviction, Salander’s investigation, Blomkvist’s appointment by Vanger; happening within the first fifty pages with the plot seamlessly moving from thereon. Blomkvist’s character was completely revealed at the outset to the reader through Salander’s investigation but then, her own profile is hardly revealed – which also contributed to the page turner effect. Another key character is Henrik Vanger – the chairman of the Vanger Corporation, the ailing businessman whose only obsession in life is to find out what happened to his niece. He does not have a very positive view on his family and is shown to be a suave and achieves what he wants without displaying aggression. The Vanger family has a murky history with its members having had connections with the Nazis during the war and neo-Nazi organisations much after the war, another reason for Henrik’s antipathy towards his clan. 

It is interesting to note that unlike other whodunnit novels, this features a murder, or so believed by both police and Vanger, was committed forty years ago – which adds a complexity to the case. The number of names and characters might be a difficulty to some of the readers but not quite if you have prior experience reading stories with several characters and in my case, having read novels like The Luminaries and One Hundred Years of Solitude helped. While the novel is not exactly a fantasy novel, the city of Hedestad and the island of Hedeby to the north of Stockholm is fictitious and both the places were described in good detail (including a map). 

While Lisbeth Salander was an interesting character and I could connect to a lot of her adjectives such as introvert, socially aloof, etc., there was insufficient detail on how she acquired those skills (hopefully described in the sequels). Moreover, she achieved her tasks with relative ease that she almost seemed like a superhero. It is true that she has gone through a lot of hardships in her life and it has taken her effort to reach this stage; but during the course of the case, she achieved her ends with relative ease. 

The Salander-Blomkvist was good contrast, while the former focuses more on the ends regardless of the means whereas Blomkvist often takes stands on principle, even if it is to his disadvantage. The unravelling of the whodunit was certainly the best part of the novel – the multiple characters they interact with. With that said, the novel was 560 pages long and the final quarter felt like a drag, and in most cases seemed unrelated to the plot. 

I also have a bone to pick with the English title - as I felt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was neither the principal character nor the central theme of the book - a direct translation of the Swedish title would have been more appropriate (which I understand was the case in French, for instance).

I judge books by their cover and I have often selected books on that basis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but this is a case where I missed out on a good book by this approach. I do have a fascination for crime stories from this region – having read Karin Fossum as well as having followed TV dramas such as Broen and Forbrydelsen. It was just that in this case, I was not aware that it was a crime novel and judging by all that I have had to say on this book thus far, I would rate this book an eight on ten. 

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

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