It’s taken me years to get around to reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the international bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson. There are a few reasons for this. For one, it’s a pretty big book. For another, it was reputed to be an addictive page-turner and I’m wary of taking those on without a good chunk of free time ahead of me. Third, I’m always wary of massively hyped bestselling books, especially genre thrillers. I’m still getting over having read Angels & Demons and I still want those four hours of my life back. And finally, I knew the tragic backstory — that Larsson died of a heart attack, at 50, before the books were published — and without a will, leading to a so-far-unresolved conflict between his father and brother, who inherited his unexpectedly valuable estate, and his longtime partner, with whom he lived for decades. Ugh.
BUT. I do like Swedish crime novels — my favorite so far is Kjell Eriksson’s “Princess of Burundi” — and these had gotten well reviewed enough that I thought it was safe to give them a try. Plus, Larsson is the subject of our Book Bites book club at the library this month. And I had a couple days of post-Fantasy Fest downtime. So I figured now was the time.
I actually had started this book once or twice before. It was one of the first that I bought when my husband got me a Kindle. But I had bounced off the beginning section and figured it wasn’t the right time. This time, I stuck it out and by 30 pages in (a guesstimate, actually, since the Kindle doesn’t give you a page number) I was hooked. The writing is nothing spectacular and I suspect the translation was clumsy at times — either too literal or veering between British and American English — but the plot and characters are so strong that it didn’t matter.
Several friends have said they had trouble with the Swedish names, both for people or places. I don’t speak or read Swedish but I am of Swedish descent, on both sides of my family including two grandparents who were raised there, and the names didn’t faze me at all, except sometimes making me feel inadequate when I wasn’t 100 percent sure on pronunciation. Oddly, since I have never been to Sweden, I had strong visual images of the island and guest cottage where a lot of the book’s action takes place — I guess I’ve seen enough photographs of the place, plus watched the BBC’s excellent adaptations of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels. And the characters, especially the hero, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and heroine, hacker/investigator Lisbeth Salander, were very strong. And the coffee! They’re always drinking coffee. At all hours, at every meal and meeting. I was craving it even more than usual. That, and a liverwurst sandwich on rye.
And I appreciated Larsson’s prescient and sensible attitude toward the financial industry, both the much-hyped billionaires who make their fortunes off what are, essentially, shell games instead of old fashioned industries where they made stuff — and the financial journalists who hype them. Larsson goes out of his way several times to unfavorably compare financial reporting to the more skeptical treatment given other kinds of crime stories or political figures. And he’s absolutely right.
There was yet another reason I had put off reading Larsson — I had heard the books were incredibly violent, specifically violent towards women. The original title of this novel, in Swedish, was Men Who Hate Women. And it definitely featured some sadistic psychopaths who have it in for women but … I didn’t feel like Larsson was celebrating the violence or getting off on it in the way you sometimes do with thrillers. He, like his hero, was a lefty investigative journalist and is decidedly on the side of the underdog — specifically Salander, who is both a victim of violence and adept at fighting back and protecting herself. And I appreciated that he provided plausible reasons that she would not seek help from the authorities, thus liberating her from the situation of the Too Stupid To Live romance novel heroine who is always getting herself into idiotic trouble for no good reason.
So I definitely plan on reading the rest of the trilogy — even though several reliable sources have already told me the first is the strongest of the three. I just don’t want to start the next one … until I have another free day or two ahead of me.