The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

dragon tattooMikael Blomkvist is in trouble. He’s a Swedish financial journalist, editor of a hard-hitting magazine called Millennium, and he’s being sued for libel: it turns out that the story he published about a wealthy and corrupt financier was false from beginning to end, and he didn’t have a scrap of proof for it. He’ll have to pay a fine and go to jail, and advertisers are pulling out of Millennium faster than he can replace them, because he’s lost his credibility as a journalist.

Which makes it all the more confusing when Henrik Vanger, another corporate magnate, approaches him with a job. I’ll save your magazine, he says, if you do something for me. Write my family history. And along the way, do the impossible: solve a thirty-year-old mystery.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, is like one of those matryoshka dolls: another mystery nesting — surprise! — in each one that begins to yield to investigation. The first is a corporate thriller, primarily to do with offshore accounts, greed, corruption, and financial sleight-of-hand. The second is a missing-person mystery, and incidentally also a locked-room mystery: Harriet Vanger, Henrik’s niece, disappeared without a trace from Hedestad Island thirty years before. Henrik has been tormented by the disappearance ever since, and wants Blomkvist to examine the cold case one more time, to see if any detail has been missed. The third mystery emerges as Blomkvist studies the facts of Harriet’s disappearance: it seems that a serial killer has been killing women in Sweden since the 1940s, undetected because the murders take place far apart and the method of murder varies.

Blomkvist is not alone in his investigation. About a third of the way through the book, he hires a research assistant, Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is deceptively young, hostile, difficult, taciturn, impossibly tough, self-sufficient, and the best researcher in Sweden. She is also a hacker: she can have all your personal information on her computer in a few seconds, for her perusal. The two of them together discover dangerous information — information they are prepared to use — and this provokes retaliation from their enemies.

To be perfectly honest, I thought this book was just okay, with a taste of being really terrible. It was very, very long for a mystery (almost 600 pages), so it really had to hold up in order to give me the will to live. It was fairly gripping as far as plot went, as you can see from my summary, and it certainly kept me turning pages. The writing was fine, but nothing to get excited about. The plot was not all that original, except that it used the material of three normal detective mysteries. Blomkvist was (I think) supposed to be a Nice Guy, but I had serious problems with his ethics: he did almost everything he said he wouldn’t do (sleeping with people you work with, not publishing an important story, sleeping with a main suspect in your investigation, and so on.) The main mystery was, to my mind, not resolved in a satisfying way, either. I was left saying, “But… but…”

My main problem with it, though, was that it had so much violence against women. The title in Swedish is Män som hatar kvinnor, which means Men Who Hate Women, and to be honest that’s a far better title for it than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There were graphic (and I mean graphic) descriptions of at least thirteen assaults, twelve of which had a rape component and eleven of which were against women. (Many, many more were implied but not described.)  Several of these were totally gratuitous (not related to any of the main plots.) For a book that had two very strong female central characters, it was surprisingly unfeminist, and frankly I found it disgusting. What was odd was that the characters were not more horrified. Blomkvist spent more time worrying that his daughter was going to spend some time with a Christian sect than shell-shocked by these assaults.

I don’t mean to rant. The book was a common or garden thriller — this kind of thing is fairly usual, whatever that may mean about the state of the thriller. But after Eva’s excellent posts about contemporary horror last week, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to say that unconsidered and gratuitous misogynist violence is not for me.

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14 Responses to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

  1. litlove says:

    I have this and I keep putting off reading it because of the level of violence. I think I would have to agree with you – I find gratuitous rape scenes extremely off-putting. This one may remain on the shelves a while longer!

  2. Eva says:

    I suspected this book might be like that, so I’m so glad you reviewed it and mentioned it. There’s no way I could handle this one!

    I think we should all start mentioning any time a book has any violence against women that fels misogynistic…because change is best at the grassroots level. :)

  3. Lu says:

    I have had zero desire to read this book and I’m glad you’ve given me justification.

  4. Ugh, gratuitous violence towards women? Probably just to sensationalize. And the main mystery isn’t even solved in a satisfying manner? Thank you for this review- I know now to steer clear!

  5. diane says:

    Sorry this one did not work out for you. I still have not read it. I tried the audio, but did not care for the reader so I stopped listening pretty quickly.

  6. Steph says:

    I’ve read so many raves about this book, and was really getting excited about it myself, but not one of the reviews I read mentioned the excessive violence (even though all of the reviews I’ve read have been written by women). I find this odd given how much there appears to be in the book by your account… I do still think this will be one I try, since I do like mysteries and thrillers, but I’m glad to know that these things will be looming.

    I did know that the title in almost every language other than English was Men Who Hate Women, and I’ve often wondered as to why they went with such a different name in English.

    I take it you won’t be reading the rest of the books in the series?

  7. Teresa says:

    I’ve been curious about this, but skeptical–as I always am about books that seem as much a phenomenon as a book. I was actually more interested when I heard the Swedish title because it sounded like it might be a serious sort of exploration of violence against women couched in a suspense novel–something more interesting than a garden variety thriller. But instead of being a book *about* such violence, it sounds like a book *of* violence. No thank you.

  8. Jenny says:

    Litlove — a friend recommended this to me very highly, so I grabbed it on a whim. It wasn’t a total waste of time, but I didn’t like it much either.

    Eva — Yes We Can! :)

    Lu — my pleasure.

    Literary Omnivore — for some reason, I mind violence less when it’s not eroticized and when it’s equal opportunity violence against men and women. Not sure what that says about me.

    Diane — let me know what you think when you get around to this one. I know many people love it.

    Steph — no, I won’t be reading the others. There was an excerpt from the first chapter of the next book at the back of this one — you know how they do that with paperbacks? — and it began with a 13-year-old girl tied to a bed, being tormented by her captor. Grrrrreeeeeat. Not for me.

    Teresa — the book you hoped it was sounds fascinating! Let me know if you ever find that book!

  9. Marieke says:

    Very insightful review. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.

  10. Alayne says:

    Wow, this book just plummeted way down on my Wish List. I keep hearing raves about it, so thank you so much for reviewing it honestly. :)

  11. Jenny says:

    Marieke — thank you!

    Alayne — Don’t strike it from your list on my account. Everyone has different tastes — this one just wasn’t to mine. :)

  12. Pingback: Northern European Authors « Diversify Your Reading

  13. karin says:

    I did not read this book but did read The Girl Who Played With Fire and I did not enjoy it at all. I was hoping for something similar to a book I read years ago- the excellent Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

  14. Pingback: #70 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson « Let's eat, Grandpa! Let's eat Grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

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