Saturday, August 14, 2010


[Department of Funny Coincidences: I just saw that Book Book reviewer Stacy posted her review of this yesterday. On top of which, it was first reviewed here last August, by one "" Wonder what the record for most-reviewed book is here? Anyway, here goes...]

The career of Mikael Blomkvist, a well-respected investigative journalist, comes to grief on a hot and utterly plausible story which, alas, is not quite true. Worse: that story presumes to expose a powerful industrialist with a taste for revenge...

Across town, a young woman named Lisbeth Salander works out a life of personal demons, with the help of a spiny attitude, a photographic memory, and some righteous computer skills...

Three hours away by train, one Henrik Vanger -- elderly but still sharp, and still at the apex of a sprawling family business -- frets that he will go to his grave without knowing the truth of a family mystery which has obsessed him for forty years...

Any of these three characters and his or her situation might fuel a thriller in a classic vein.

Bring two of them together, and your readers might wonder if you're trying too hard.

Combine all three into a single tale, and you may be charged with (at best) possession of a lazy, disorderly mind.

Now go even further: combine all three, give them no superpowers, and put them not in exotic, jet-set locales but in Sweden for a dark, wintry year. Take your good old time wandering through several opening chapters almost exclusively expository in nature. And finally, in the rest of the book, alternate long passages describing arcane matters like stock-market manipulations with brief scenes of explosive, almost excruciatingly creepy violence.

Do all that, it seems, and you'll count yourself lucky to find a publisher, let alone readers.

But Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo didn't become an international bestseller by accident. That its author died shortly after delivering its manuscript to his publisher (along with those of two sequels) may be a perverse little twist of fate. But that curious bit of trivia is certainly not enough to sell the book. The real reason that Dragoon Tattoo succeeds -- has struck a sympathetic chord in so many readers -- may be that it's just a good book.

Larsson's prose, translated to English by "Reg Keeland" (a pseudonym for Steven T. Murray), does not dazzle. If it did, I think, it would be easy to dismiss as unnecessarily fancy. Aside from action scenes and dialogue, the central "topics" of the book are, after all, quite complex: the ups and downs of managing a magazine as a business; international industry and banking; computer and network hacking; and twisted family relationships (enough to require a family tree), going back generations. Much stylistic foofaraw would simply make them harder to follow. The action scenes themselves, on the other hand, can be quite brutal: dress them up in rhetorical flourishes and you run the risk of glamorizing the violence. Under all these circumstances, in short, I don't think I'd want the prose to be anything but workmanlike, serviceable, transparent.

I may have been among a minority of Dragoon Tattoo's readers, in coming to it relatively unspoiled by outside opinion. In the entire five years since the book's original publication in Sweden, let alone the last two in the US, I'd not read any reviews of it, nor discussed it with anyone else who'd read it. I picked up my own copy because I was simply curious: that ornate, fluorescent-yellow-green cover seemed to be everywhere. (And what a cool title, too.)

Now, having finished it, I still think it's an unlikely success story. I haven't counted pages, but I'd guess that the expository passages outnumber the action ones not just in quantity but in sheer volume. When those islands of action did come into the foreground, I think the satisfaction I felt came not just from seeing complex evil characters get their comeuppance and complex good ones triumph, but from simple relief.

But again, the book flies in the face of expectations. To say it "breaks all the rules" would give it too much credit; this isn't Ulysses, after all, and I doubt that Larsson -- himself a journalist -- ever imagined it as art. Yet somehow, reading each page required me to read the next, which required me to read the next...

...and 500 pages later, I'm just looking forward to those two sequels.

[Reviewer's note: sorry for not really covering the book's plot. This is an offbeat thriller, and (for me, anyhow) the surprises in those moments of action constituted genuine pleasure. If you want to know more about what actually happens, Lord knows there are plenty of other reviews out there. Or, uh, here. Ha.]


stacy said...

Nice review. I too think maybe Larsson was only trying to give these mysteries a little twist. But I love that he made a 90-pound, scrawny goth girl a true hero.

JES said...

Those who've read the book might get a laugh (as I did) out of Nora Ephron's recent parody of it, in The New Yorker.

[Hat tip to fellow Book Book reviewer Froog for the link.]