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.
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