Friday, 24 June 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson


This is the first book in the world-famous Millennium trilogy, by Stieg Larsson. Larsson was Swedish, and consequently the books have been translated from Swedish into several other languages, including English. It was also adapted into a film in 2009, which took the equivalent of nearly £2million in its opening week in Sweden. As of this time last year, Larsson had sold more than 20million copies in 41 countries - the entire series has clearly been resoundingly popular all around the world, and the titles have become household names.

Stieg Larsson died in 2004 at the age of 50 after a sudden heart attack. He had just delivered the texts for his three books to the publishers, so sadly he never saw his books published - or indeed the worldwide phenomenon that his works became.

As a result, he was obviously never able to comment on or give interviews about his books, but it is quite clear where he found his inspiration. When he was 15 he witnessed the gang rape of a young girl called Lisbeth - he never forgave himself for not being able to help her, and if you've read the book you'll realise the relevance of this.

The original Swedish title of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' was 'Män Som Hatar Kvinnor', or 'Men Who Hate Women'. I think that perhaps this direct translation would have been a more fitting title for the English version, as it certainly describes a prominent theme which runs throughout the text.

---The Plot---

Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist, convicted of libel after publishing a damaging article on a prominent Swedish businessman, Wennerström. His magazine, Millennium, starts failing dramatically as a result, so Blomkvist decides to take some time away from the magazine to let things die down, before he can start rebuilding the magazine along with a further attack against Wennerström.

Around the same time as he decides to distance himself from the magazine, Blomkvist is approached by another prominent Swedish businessman, Henrik Vanger - former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, and head of the complicatedly-entwined Vanger family. Vanger makes Blomkvist a proposal: live for a year with the rest of the Vanger family, and write a book to chronicle the Vanger family history. However, Vanger wants this to hide Blomkvist's true objective - to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger (Henrik's granddaughter) almost forty years previously.

Blomkvist takes up Vanger's offer, and as he starts to unravel the complicated history of the Vanger family, enlists the help of the socially-awkward, often-underestimated but super-sharp computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander.

Together, the unlikely pair delves deeper and deeper into the Vanger family's secrets, discovering lies, betrayal, madness - and a lot of skeletons in the closets. As things become increasingly dangerous for them, they begin to realise the strength and power of the Vanger family...someone is out to stop their investigations. But who? And why?

---The Verdict: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be?---

Absolutely is it all it's cracked up to be! But let's not get over-excited, take things one step at a time...

First thing's first. The beginning of the book (I'm talking the first chapter or two) contains quite a bit of detail about the Wennerström Affair - the article that was published by Blomkvist, which led him to be charged with libel. It's all about finance, and the structure of Wennerström's companies, which was at first a little intimidating. I know next to nothing about how large companies are structured, financed or run - let alone those in Sweden, and I remember thinking that the book wouldn't really be my thing. However, I stuck with it, and it turned out that a lot of the detail given is superfluous. All you really need to know is that Wennerström ran some dodgy and underhand operations, and that he was a bad man! Don't let all the detail put you off: getting bogged down with trying to understand all of it won't be worth it, as it's not really relevant to the rest of the story. Just stick to the basics with all the financial and business jargon!

Having said all that, I'm making a bigger deal of all that than it actually was - it certainly wasn't worth knocking anything off my rating of it, it doesn't detract from the story, and it didn't last long at all. For me, plot and characterisation are the two most important things in any book - and in 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', both are executed brilliantly.

The characterisation is superb - Mikael Blomkvist is one of the easiest characters to relate to that I've ever come across. He's laid back, has a vice for no-strings-attached sex with his long-term friend and colleague Erika Berger, and becomes frustrated when he can't stand up for what he believes in - all these characteristics are beautifully and effortlessly conveyed, and make him seem, well...human.

Lisbeth Salander's character is so striking that in real life she'd probably be too unusual to live as she does in the book. However, she is described so clearly, and her incredible intelligence means you can visualise her and understand her point of view as if it were your own - no matter how unconventional (or illegal!) it may seem.

There aren't lots of fancy adjectives or other techniques used to describe any of the characters - I can't really describe how it's done, but the bizarre partnership, along with their interactions with Erika and the Vanger family, seem like the most natural relationships in the world.

As for the plot: I can't fault it. The main story follows Blomkvist's search into the Vanger family's past, but there are several sub-plots to follow as well. Each is clearly defined by paragraph breaks, and the character and settings make it immediately clear what's being spoken about in each part. When it comes to the plot, there is no confusion whatsoever.

The plot is pacy, but not overly so. You may feel it slows down quite a lot in certain places, but far from becoming boring it works with the rest of the book - too much pace and excitement can also get a bit tedious. The mystery of what happened to Harriet is enticing and leaves you as the reader both interested and guessing the whole time.

Larsson's writing style is so simple and clear that this book is consequently very easy to read. Add this to the excitement that you'll get from the plot, and this book is definitely a page-turner. I couldn't put this book down - and the sun we've had recently gave me the perfect excuse to work my way through it!

I could go on for hours talking about this book, but I'll try not to go on for too long!

One thing I was worried about before I started reading was all the Swedish names. It's bad enough when I read an English book and all the characters have similar names; Joe, John, Joshua, Gill and Jenna...I'm all over the place and have no idea who's who! I certainly worried that this problem would increase tenfold with all the Swedish names. Plus, on opening the book I was provided with a Vanger family tree - this set alarm bells ringing as any book that needs the illustration of a family tree is bound to be confusing!

However, I needn't have been worried at all. The characters all had totally different names, as the brothers Henrik and Harald Vanger were about the most similar they came. Thankfully, I was rarely left confused about who a character was, and found I didn't even have to refer to the family tree once! I think this clarity was down to the clear writing style, and that excellent characterisation, once again...

For me, this book definitely lived up to the hype and deserves every bit of credit and recognition it gets. I'm finding it virtually impossible to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes it so special, but there's no doubt that this book is in a league of its own. The storyline is both impeccable, intriguing and exciting all at the same time, and it's written in such a way that it's so easy to read. I think it's the characters that really make this book, though, as they're compelling to follow yet so easy to relate to at the same time. It's the characters who enticed me into making my way through the second book in the series (which, by the way, is just as brilliant!).

It's just a pity that Larsson died so young, with so much untapped potential left inside him...

Everyone I've spoken to who has read this book has been amazed by it - it's already become one of my favourite books, and is no doubt one of the books you must read before you die!

---And Finally...---

You get the book...and you get the film. I was very keen to see the film a few months ago, and now that I've read the book I'm glad I didn't see the film. It's the type of book where it's so exciting and interesting to visualise in your mind's eye, that for me, any attempt to recreate the scenes on film would just ruin it. I haven't seen the film and don't wish to, but if you're toying about which to do first, I'd recommend you read the book.

You can currently buy a new copy of this book for £3.89 from Amazon (BARGAIN!!), or for £6.39 from The Book People.

I used the following websites for reference, and to gather some of the information included in the 'Background' section:
Summary: The mystery is intriguing; the characters captivating; the writing exceptional
Rating: 5/5!


  1. I'm willing to put aside my irrationally stubborn refusal to read this particular series and give it a shot thanks to your review, especially since you gave it a 5 out of 5. I haven't read much in the way of Icelandic Noir, but this seems to be a good place to start. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment Marlena. This was also my starting point for dark Scandinavian books, and much to my surprise it's actually a genre I've really grown to enjoy! I hope you enjoy this book - my review of the second book in the series will be up soon so take a look at that as I think it's even better!


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