A Voice from Beyond the Grave

This morning at 2:36 am (which also counts as “last night” in my world) I read the last page of my first book of 2011 and closed the cover. I don’t think I’ve actively stopped thinking about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo since then. What I’m about to say will come as no surprise to about 90% of the people who’ve read this book, and that number totals in the many millions: I deeply loved it, and I found it deeply challenging.

As I really can’t say anything that hundreds (if not tens of thousands) of reviewers haven’t already said, I’ll try to explain why I think I initially felt the way I did, and and ultimately how I continue to feel now. Stated simply, I think it’s highly unlikely, no matter how hard I try, that I will read a better book this year; which is an almost depressing thing to realize midway through January.

After staring at this post in the edit screen for the last twelve hours, I’ve come to a simple conclusion. The only book I can really compare it to is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at both a quality-of-writing level and at a moral-and-ethical-impact level.

I had read very little about the premise of the novel before starting it. I was vaguely aware of the heaps and heaps of praise it had received, I knew it was some kind of mystery/thriller, and I knew the heroine was moderately anti-social. I had NOT been prepared for the nature of the evil that lurked in the background of the story and burbled and percolated up to the surface. Nor was I prepared for at least one scene which actually left me shaken.

Without offering any kind of specific spoiler, let me just say that there are moments of violence in the novel that are tragically and disturbingly specific without being gratuitous or excessive in their presentation. Something handled so deftly it actually shocked me when it occurred.

As a former mystery aficionado (in my early teens) I deeply enjoyed the entire work. The event, the setting, and the investigation sequence were all amazing. As a mystery novel comprised of the standard elements of a mystery novel, it was excellent.

Also, let me say something about the translation. Swedish and English don’t share a lot of idioms and the process of making something that sounds “right” in one language even communicate the correct information in another is astoundingly difficult. Making it read like it was originally written in English is nearly impossible. This translation is, quite frankly, miraculous. There are dozens and dozens of books written and published (in English) every year that don’t have a tenth of the grasp of English that this book does.

I’ve read reviews where people criticized the dialog as “wooden” and “stilted” and I’m quite sure they were reading a different book than I was. Large sections of the dialog in the novel take place between people who either have lifelong careers speaking in complete paragraphs while saying next to nothing, or else are so emotionally cautious that most communication is in minimal discreet chunks of information. As I myself am in the category of the former, and I know quite a few people who are the latter, the dialog felt absolutely spot on. Not only plausible, but downright correct in tone and pattern.

Also, the book is somewhat long at six-hundred pages in paperback, yet it moves very quickly. I read it in three consecutive evenings and always had to force myself to stop. There are multiple plot threads that weave together nicely, and I personally never felt like the info dumps were obvious or mis-placed. Large blocks of exposition are simply a natural part of a mystery novel, and this one always managed to make the reader’s path through the exposition match up with the characters’ progress. I never felt like I was waiting for them to “catch up” which is a significant accomplishment compared to even some of the best mysteries out there.

So, all told, Steig Larsson gets a big pair of thumbs up and his first book gets a resounding five stars from me.

Which is where I get truly depressed. Before I started reading his first novel I had been aware that Larsson had died, I did not know that he had died before the books were published. This was a man who never knew that he was the best selling fiction author in 2008, and he never knew that twenty-seven MILLION people in forty countries would read his stories. As I am a man in my mid-thirties, who desires to write and be published, facing the simple truth that you could succeed and NEVER KNOW is distressing.

The lesson, perhaps, is that Larsson wrote purely for his own amusement and enjoyment. His hero is a naked gary-stu, and the book is filled with offhand references and shout-outs to both his past employers and personal relationships; as well as a laundry list of mystery writers from the past. But they’re all invoked (for the most part) with affection; and the book contains numerous winks and nods that are fun to look for, especially in the epilogue-like final hundred pages.

Ultimately, the book is challenging. When I compared it to Harper Lee’s masterpiece I was speaking directly to the challenge that the book pushes into the readers face. It’s title in Swedish would be translated literally as “Men who hate women” and that’s exactly what this book is about. Larsson wrote it without apology. He wrote for himself. He wrote it to make the reader flinch, and as that reader was himself, he knew exactly what buttons to push. I think those buttons are nearly universal.

The lasting value of To Kill A Mockingbird is the confrontation that the story has with racism and the confrontation that the reader has with the issues in the novel. In The Girl with the Dragon Tatto Stieg Larsson accomplishes the same thing for the issues of sexual violence, and he does it without being cloying or grandstanding. He simply confronts us with a reality and then lets us confront ourselves.

Today it is a popular novel, one hundred years from now, it will be a standout classic of twenty-first century literature.

[Word Count: 1053]

9 thoughts on “A Voice from Beyond the Grave

  1. Well done! I can’t write a book review to save my life. The best I can do is throw in a “great read” on Goodreads when I finish one.

    This is the second book review I can remember writing since college. The first is still on the internet over here. I rarely “review” things because I find tastes and preferences to be so specific, and mine so often unusual, that I rarely feel comfortable saying “this was good” or worse, “this was bad.”

    I liked this book too, and the second in the set, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire.’ I have the third (and final) book of the set on my shelf, but I’m purposely stalling on reading it because I know when I finish it, that’s it.

    There are rumors that there are actually two or possibly three more manuscripts in various states of “done” that will see publication in the next few years. I don’t know how much of that will be ghost written vs. original material, but I’m willing to give them a chance. I suspect the translation will influence the american perception of them anyway, as it’s hard to tell one source from another when it’s the same translator ironing out the rough parts.

    That being said, I had to read something else before starting the second book. I just wasn’t up for another round of misogyny and revenge quite that soon, no matter how well done.

    And there’s plenty of men hating women in the second one, with Lisbeth telling misogynists what for.

    EXACTLY why I waited. I didn’t need a crystal ball to figure that out, just from the title.

    I think the movie version of the first book is going to be released (the English language version) this fall. It will be very difficult for a movie to live up to the book, but I’ve heard the Swedish version was very good.

    The Swedish ones are now in my NetFlix queue, but I’m really not sure what they can cut and what they can show with an R rating and not alter the motivations or impact of the characters. I’m sure I’ll see the movie, I’m just afraid that no matter how good “as a movie” it is, I’ll judge it too harshly. Like what would happen for some people with The Time Traveler’s Wife

  2. I’m going to give that book a shot, I’ve heard so many good things about it.

    As I said to Allison, I have a hard time saying “you’ll like this” to anyone because it may touch a nerve or push a button in some people. It’s pretty unflinching in some places and while that worked for me, and I think it will ultimately make it a lasting work of literature, it could certainly pass someone’s threshold for taste pretty quick. It wasn’t quite at the Tomas Harris level, but it had that same squicky feel in a couple of spots. Overall, I loved it deeply and I’m very glad I finally read it.

    As for being concerned that you’ve already read the best book you’re going to read all year, I say change things up entirely. Don’t try to compete with Dragon Tattoo. I’ve just finished reading my first book of the year, too, AND I gave it a 10 on my personal rating scale (of 1-10 … original, eh?). I’ve only rated a handful of books a “10” over the years. It’s called “The Breach” and it’s by Patrick Lee. Science fiction and absolutely EXCELLENT. Unsurprising as it was recommended to me by the author of the only other “10” rated sci-fi book I’ve read, “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi.

    I’m a lifelong sci-fi fan anyway, so it’s no stretch for me to pick up something recommended by John Scalzi. As Scalzi is a genius who’s tastes tend to run in the same vain as my own, his rec for The Breach had already hit my radar. The fact that YOU also loved it is enough for me to move it out of “to read eventually” limbo and put it on my “soon to read” list.

  3. The only reason you didn’t read this in just 24 hours is because I grumped at you for the light being on. πŸ˜›

    I’d have polished it off in six hours, the biggest problem was repeatedly going to bed and starting to read after midnight.

    I’m glad your Christmas present was such a hit. But had I known the graphic nature of this, I would not have gotten it for you.

    No, it wasn’t graphic in a way that would have put me off, just came up as a surprise.

    From the sounds of it, this was as graphic and horrific as my Anne Bishop novels, of which you said you didn’t want to touch BECAUSE of that.

    Without going into details that might spoil some of the surprises, let me say that the nature of the violence is subtly different. Sadism in fantastic fiction hits my squicky button faster because the rules are different. In a fantasy world the capacity for evil exceeds the plausible limits we have in the “real world.”

    Glad you liked it. I will read it later, much later. Probably the same way as I did “Elantris”, when you thrust it upon me.

    I hope you will read it, but I will say that this is one thing that I will not “thrust” upon anyone.

  4. I keep being told to read this book, but I think I want to wait until the fad dies out a little. I believe everyone that it is amazing, but I hate reading anything just because everyone else is. I always END UP reading it anyways, but I like a little protest at first.

    I typically feel the same way. It’s rare for me to pick up a bestseller unless I already know the author or have some connection to the work. Just selling a lot of copies has no bearing on my odds of liking it. I learned that lesson in 1985 with L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth series. Of course, we all know now that the sales numbers were…manipulated a tad in that case, but the lesson holds true.

    I second Allison’s comment- great review- very well written and no spoilers for the crazy people like me who haven’t already read it!

    Thanks, I hate spoilers in reviews of anything, so I’m extra sensitive to it. I’m glad my review came off as readable. I have such a hard time actually “reviewing” something because I always want to couch every opinion with “at least for me” and “I thought” or “as I see it” which isn’t the least bit helpful for writing something clearly.

  5. haha, I have the same tendency to clarify my opinions and thoughts, but I’m trying to get over it

    Long ago (it saddens me deeply that I can now use that phrase without irony) I had an English teacher who tried desperately to teach effective criticism to a class full of hyper-polite and moderately repressed boarding school Seniors. Twelve years of active instruction in civility is a pretty large deterrent to making broad categorical statements, and she could never quite convince us to really let loose on a subject. I struggled with it all year until I finally unleashed my inner Simon Cowell and wrote a review titled “Wuthering Heights, a classically bad classic” in which I unleashed a veritable blowtorch of invective that burned brighter than the noon-day sun upon every facet of the book from its characters to its plot to its charmless and maudlin premise. It was a review that basically streamed vitriol mercilessly at a book I consider to be the worst “classic” in the canon of English letters. A review for which she gave me an A.

    Which is amazing because it was one of her favorite books. I know that because she told me in the little note on the cover page along with my grade and a crying frowny-face.

  6. First, BP- You WILL TOO! I know you! You do that to me all the time! When I can’t figure out what to read, you pick something for me. Or you suggest and suggest until I feel nagged. So, YES! At some point, you WILL thrust this on me.

    I only nagged about Elantris because I knew you’d like it. But I will not “thrust” this on anyone, it’s too specific. I can’t honestly say if you’ll like it or not, it’s as much about financial empires and legal maneuvers as it is a locked-room mystery. Either you’ll enjoy the story or you’ll want to hit the hero in the head with the hint-stick; Magic 8-Ball says “50-50 chance.”

    Rachel- I’m like you. I don’t want to read it if it’s the hottest thing out right now. I’d rather the hub-bub all die down, IF I bother to read what’s popular at all.

    Unless it features ponies or dogs…then it’s on like Donkey-Kong. πŸ˜›

  7. I love this book too. I am in the middle of it and I have the 2nd book. It’s very compelling but also well written. Take the Da Vinci code…compelling but NOT well written. So you have the best of both worlds here. I enjoyed the review. Rock on!

    That is EXACTLY how I felt about The Da Vinci Code as well! I will say that I enjoyed Angles & Demons significantly more as both a book and a movie. I’m looking forward to the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo; but I’m afraid I’ve got such a high opinion of the book that the movie, no matter how good, will fail to live up to it.

  8. “Stated simply, I think itÒ€ℒs highly unlikely, no matter how hard I try, that I will read a better book this year; which is an almost depressing thing to realize midway through January.”

    Read Larsson’s two sequel novels, then come back and re-visit that statement. :) I think I read the last book in a day and a half…I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

    I’m really glad to hear this. I’m always afraid that everything else is sub-par to the first one. This makes me a bit more excited to read the other two, and I didn’t think there was any way to be MORE excited about something.

  9. Pride and Prejudice? ‘Nough said!

    Hey Now! I was HARDLY the only one pimping out the Austen love…

    And I didn’t read Marley and Me for a long, long time. So PBBT! πŸ˜›

    “a long, long time” in this instance was roughly 8.23 seconds…which I’m sure felt like an eternity. πŸ˜›

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