Friday, August 27, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

I started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on our vacation.  I already knew how popular this book has become across the United States and I have seen people reading Stieg Larsson's trilogy everywhere.  At our B&B, we met a couple from Denmark; they had read the series and were quite enthusiastic about it.  It's not just a bestseller here, it's a global phenomenon.

The first book centers around the mystery of a girl, Harriet Vanger, who disappeared from a rich Swedish family during the 1960s.  Instead of a detective solving this 40 year old cold case, it's a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a hacker, Lisbeth Salander.  Salander is the girl in the title and the reason for the series popularity.  Salander is short, thin, decorated with tattoos and piercings, and fundamentally lacking in most social skills.  She suffers the loss of her mother and home, being committed to a mental institution, and one of the most horrific rape scenes I've read in a bestseller.  But Lisbeth is a survivor, highly intelligent and skilled at hacking--which is why this book will appeal to geeks.  Although be prepared--the book was written in 2004 and the tech involves iBooks, Zip Disks, and other tech (like a Palm handheld) that is now outdated.

The most popular mystery series usually have some kind of genius, like Sherlock Holmes, and a partner like Dr. Watson, who exists for exposition.  Blomkvist partially fills this latter role, although he has old fashioned investigative skills that complement Salander.  He is a crusading journalist, and he seems like the James Bond of journalists, because women are constantly falling into his bed.  Which is probably why Daniel Craig will play Blomkvist in the (American produced) film version.  Blomkvist and Salander investigate the mysteries on two separate tracks and eventually collide.  The setting of a mystery is also important, and the locations in Sweden are foreign and interesting to most readers from the United States.  The first book is centered around Hedeby Island in Sweden, a convenient closed-off location for a murder.  One thing I've learned: Swedish people really seem to drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of open-faced sandwiches.

The mystery in the first book is fascinating, though I figured out what happened to Harriet early on, that didn't spoil my enjoyment.  It's not a perfect book by any means.  Larsson makes a number of mistakes that seem glaring, like switching character viewpoint within a scene.  But the characters, setting, and plot hooked me until the end.

Dragon Tattoo comes to a satisfying conclusion, but there are dangling plot threads in Salander's life that form the core of the story in the next two books.  Salander herself is the mystery and the people coming out of her past are the threat.  What I found terribly lacking in the latter two books is that Blomkvist and Salander are separated until the very end of each book.  They do work together in a remote fashion, but it's such a shame, because this duo has great chemistry.

Another fault of Larsson's almost my derailed my enjoyment of these two novels.  As a journalist, he obviously had a great deal of knowledge about politics, police, business, government and sexual oppression.  The middle section of each book is overwhelmed with these details, to the point where Salander is driven into the background.  In The Girl Who Played with Fire, I could put up with it, because watching the police detectives trying to unravel the mystery knot that Larsson created is entertaining.  Salander is in such an impossible situation that it seems insurmountable.  She emerges in the last third of the book to untie this knot and confront one of the demons that has haunted her entire life.  The showdown at the end of Fire is intense and it breaks off in a cliffhanger worthy of The Empire Strikes Back.  Luckily, I didn't have to wait to read the final chaper.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest starts right after the end of Fire and Salander's life and freedom are still in jeopardy.  There are some great scenes for the first 200 pages or so, but afterward, the middle section of the book drags into this conspiracy with the Swedish spy agency that had ties to Salander's family.  There is an elaborate sting operation and a back and forth game of intrigue between Blomkvist and the spies.  I quickly grew bored with this material.  Without Salander in the forefront, I almost gave up altogether.  Some readers on GoodReads had experienced the same fatigue and suggested skipping the middle section.  I took their advice, picking up on the last 150 pages where Salander's trial started.  I didn't feel like I missed anything important and the last section of the book concerning Salander's fate and final conflict was thrilling.

I graded the Millennium trilogy on GoodReads.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: 4 stars. The Girl Who Played with Fire: 3 stars.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: 2 stars.  In short, the series is flawed but still entertaining, I just wish Larsson had lived to have some editing and be able to write sequels.  Salander's sister Camilla is mentioned repeatedly and must have been in his mind for future books.  I have to wonder if Camilla was supposed to be Salander's Moriarty?  Nuff Said!

Link: My profile on GoodReads
Link: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Link: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Link: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Link: Reg Keeland, Stieg Larsson's English Translator

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