Department of English

Spring 2011 Edition

A Critique of a Not-So-Stellar Masterpiece

Johanna Taylor
Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Professor: Charla Strosser

When one first picks up nationally-acclaimed novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, very high expectations naturally come with it. For the book to become the overnight success that it has, a work of pure genius is expected, a piece of detective fiction that is captivating and virtually flawless. The reader ends up having to push through pages of mundane activities, baseless misogyny (that is, astonishingly, represented as commonplace in Sweden), and a lot of random fornication to get to the shocking and intriguing climax of the story. In terms of fiction, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was mediocre because it was overly graphic, slow-going, and suffered from a boring sub-plot and an uninteresting protagonist; in terms of detective fiction, it was quite well-done in that the solving of the mystery was clear and cleverly written. The way the clues and the denouement were set up made it worth the read, but in the end, it did not feel like a global phenomenon of a book.

The story opens with the mystery of Harriet Vanger, who has been missing from a wealthy corporate family for 40 years. It has long been accepted that she had died somehow and the case became cold, but her uncle, Henrik Vanger, refuses to give up on her. He enlists the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve the mystery of her disappearance, and what is unraveled becomes a gripping family drama laced with misogyny-fueled crime. Now that, in and of itself, is an interesting premise for a story. However, the pacing in the first half of the book slows to a crawl when the reader is forced to wade through the vast Vanger family tree for suspects to keep track of, and watch the protagonist wander around an island town in self-imposed exile for a hundred pages doing nothing of real consequence. He asks some family members generic questions about what they knew about the victim, but outside of that, nothing happens during that large portion of the book. In fiction, pacing is a critical part of the story because it is what keeps the reader's attention and makes him or her want to continue reading; otherwise, he or she will shelve the book and never care to open it again. In this novel, the pacing was on-and-off-again; when it came to the dull protagonist, it was painful to sit through, because that meant listening to his brooding, pages-long dissections of financial hierarchy and scandal. But when it came to the mystery unfolding and the titular "Girl," tattooed-and-pierced Lisbeth Salander—an autistic adult who spends her time hacking into computers, getting hung over, and brutally punishing every man who even considers taking advantage of her—it was impossible to put the book down.

On the other end of the character spectrum, the development of the main protagonist, Blomkvist, was shallow and muddled; which is annoying by itself, because this is the character the reader has to follow for three-quarters of the 460-page novel. In good fiction, main characters are established that the reader cares about and feels sympathy for, and then the plot happens around them, whereas Blomkvist seemed like simply a means for the plot to advance rather than a real character. It even seemed like he was an author-insertion on the grounds that he was an "[average-looking,] forty-two year old" journalist (like Larsson), who is established as passive and laid-back, yet he manages to sleep with every girl who held more than a bit role in the story… multiple times (Larsson 50). For example, he spends pages 59 to 66 having an affair with the co-editor in his magazine business; from page 211 to page 233 he decides to have another affair with potential suspect Cecilia Vanger in the midst of interviewing her about the mystery; and then he has an affair with Salander for the rest of the book. There was literally no reason for all of the sexual activity aside from a diversion from the main plot and a failed attempt at developing his character, which, given the traits that had already been set for him, just made him confusing.

Set into the background of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is financial intrigue during which Blomkvist is sued for libel by an evil corporate mobster with a lot of connections who is bent on destroying his independent magazine business. Not only was this whole sub-plot described in logistics only a Yale business graduate could understand, it felt very much like Larsson was trying to show off his extensive knowledge and speculation of the corrupt financial scene of Sweden. As a matter of fact, a lot of the book was spent depicting Sweden as a country full of corruption and evil men. The way Larsson describes Sweden, things like murder, money-laundering, sexual abuse and sadism seem almost routine. Reporter Alex Berenson explains that "the novel offers a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to [how] Swedish men treat Swedish women … Except for Blomkvist, every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist" (Berenson). Ordinarily, a statement like this would be hard to accept, but the typical reader's knowledge of Swedish culture being as limited as it is, this novel did make the Scandinavian country's dark side far more prominent than the good qualities it doubtlessly possesses.

The book is full of feminist anti-violence undertones specifically directed at Sweden, some more subtle than others. For instance, with each new chapter Larsson will include a statistic involving man-to-woman violence in Sweden that looks like this: "Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship" (126). Larsson—being a left-wing crusader and a long-time advocate of women's rights—paints his political perspective very clearly through his novel; too clearly, arguably, with the graphic detail in which he depicts scenes of sexual violence in his novel. As much as showing-rather-than-telling indicates the stroke of a good author, the vividness of Larsson's violent scenes felt completely superfluous, thrown in only for shock value. Perhaps he wanted to send the message to misogynists everywhere that they had better start treating girls with respect, or the vindictive Lisbeth Salander will come after them with a taser and a tattoo gun (255, 263). But, after sixty pages of brutality the likes of which are too sickening to describe, it begins to feel counter-intuitive to his real values.

Though it left much to be desired in the measure of good fiction, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is well done when compared to the standards of detective fiction. The story has order, is meticulously-planned, and the culprit is both unexpected and thoroughly believable. It follows the standard rules of detective fiction set by Ronald Knox; no secret passages, no undiscovered poisons, the criminal is mentioned early on (amid the exhaustive list of Vanger relatives), and Blomkvist, with his partner Salander, do not hide any clues they find from the reader. The book was not very clear in delineating the Watson from the Sherlock in this story, since Salander and Blomkvist do not join forces until half-way through the book. Although Salander's prodigious intelligence would, by principal, make her the key detective, Blomkvist was the one originally tasked with solving the mystery, whereas Salander just showed up to help him out—she was enlisted by Blomkvist himself to help him with his research (336)—making Blomkvist the key detective. In either case, both of their thought-processes are revealed to the reader.

However, there was one rule that this novel did break, and pretty thoroughly. The presence of twins or look-alikes is supposed to be warned of ahead of time in good detective fiction, and yet there is no revelation in the book that Cecilia and Anita Vanger, two people suspected of involvement in the mystery, look like identical twins—they are cousins—until near the resolution of the mystery. As a result, we are led to believe that "one person fitted the description … Cecilia Vanger" as a key point of evidence in the mystery, only to suddenly be told much later it was actually her look-alike cousin Anita the whole time (307). It felt a little heavy-handed, and bogged down the solving of the mystery being forced onto that false trail. Aside from that one broken rule, there isn't much in this novel that would cause it not to be considered good detective fiction.

Overall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a fairly captivating novel featuring a well-thought-out mystery and a very unique and edgy supporting character, Lisbeth Salander. Due to the frivolous profanities, graphic violence and sex scenes, and a great deal of boring financial drama, it would only feel good as a one-time read (even less than that, if one happens to be a sensitive reader). This novel was mediocre fiction in spite of its popularity, but it turned out to be very good detective fiction.

Works Cited
Berenson, Alex. "Vanished." The New York Times | Sunday Book Review. 14 Sept 2008. Web. 17 March 2011.
Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Stockholm, Sweden: Vintage Books, 2005. Print.