Dragon's Blood: A review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I wonder which, for a writer, is worse: to die unpublished or to die just before your books become an international publishing sensation. Stieg Larsson didn’t worry much about the former, apparently, because he wrote his books for fun after hours and didn’t do much to get them published. It wasn’t long after he’d delivered the manuscripts of his Millennium Trilogy, which to date have sold nearly 30 million books and spawned three films, that he had the heart attack that killed him at the age of 50. Either way, it’s gotta be hard.

There’s a great deal that I like about Larsson’s books—they’re enjoyably addictive, as advertised—and very little that I don’t like, which for me is rare. What I enjoy most are the colourful, vivid and highly principled characters—particularly Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium Magazine’s diligent and good, if overly earnest journalist, and, somewhat less, the feral but brilliant Lisbeth Salander, who wins no points for congeniality and would piss me off pretty quickly if we met. But liking a character is not a criterion for being interested in reading about her.

The back story to the first book is the Swedish equivalent of a financial Watergate, involving one of the country’s biggest and shadiest financiers, Hans-Erik Wennerström. At the outset, an ill-prepared Blomkvist takes Wennerström on but fails to bring him down, leaving him another 700-plus pages to turn that story around. The main story, however, and the one Blomkvist turns to in his self-imposed exile, is that of a woman gone missing—possibly abducted, but more likely murdered—thirty-six years earlier. Blomkvist eventually figures out which and, intriguingly, the answer ties into his earlier battle with the mega-financier. Solving the mystery also introduces him to the anti-social Salander, a true heavyweight when it comes to illegal hacking and behind-the-scenes snooping, when he employs her to help with his research.

Like other Scandinavian mysteries I’ve read of late, this book harbours a fascination with sexual “perversions.” The subtext is always sex. (In fact, the book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women. Can we say, “Sociology Lesson?”) It’s as if the entire country has nothing better to think about. Still, we know such things exist and statistics prove sexual abuse is rampant—why would Sweden be an exception?—but as literary fodder it at times seems merely horrific in a banal way rather than revelatory.

Larsson employs a naturalistic writing style—nothing fancy, and little that’s inventive—the description of a cup of coffee is about the most you’ll get. His narrative moves at a steady 80 mph in a 100 mph zone with remarkable consistency, but is seldom boring. I enjoyed the labyrinthine plotting, which could rival Proust for the intricacy of character interactions. Before you can tire of one character, he’s off following the trail of another, just like a good PI.

As Blomkvist delves into the story of the missing woman, the book skirts melodrama frequently, but not too annoyingly. What is annoying, however, is how often bad things happen to the most deserving characters in a way that smacks of wish fulfilment on the author’s part. (More sociology, I presume.) As well, the set ups for the mystery are a bit too simple. I guessed the outcome to the disappearance after reading the first chapter—far too soon to be tipping the reader off—and it’s not a terribly original solution, either. Still, you stick with this story and its highly memorable characters because, apart from any minor qualms you may have about them, they are truly absorbing in the best possible way.


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