I have just read Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I picked this book up (or should that be “I picked up this book”?) at Heathrow on a whim recently, en route to Peru. I had little to read, and its fame, combined with the warm comments of some quite serious reviewers overcame my doubts: I read it in five hours or so on the plane, and I was really quite impressed, although the feeling weakened a bit as the book went on, particularly in the closing phases.
There is an unusual premise, which forms the opening – the respected journalist Blomqvist is found guilty of libel, as he is unable to substantiate a major story he has written. In fact, the story – and much, much worse – is true, but he’s been let down by his sources, and made a bad judgement call. A mysterious commission, to write a boring sounding corporate history, covering the investigation of a thirty year old disappearance and probable murder, gives him a chance to take revenge and clear his name. So here are a couple of intriguing storylines, but no sign of the eponymous heroine.
She – Lisbeth Salander – crops up in the context of a security firm for which she has been doing research. She is young, attractive, but spookily private and unhappy – and it turns out she has a tormented childhood, a history of institutional care, and probably some social-psychological problems. She trusts no-one, hates institutions and authority, presumes anyone who tries to help her wants to abuse her – and is eerily good at ferreting out information, mainly by scarily brilliant computer skills. She uses these skills to make a living, but also to redress wrongs according to her own powerful private sense of justice and retribution.
The two of them link up, and their investigation is successful, horrifying, and dramatic. They solve the thirty year old crime, vindicate Blomqvists's criticisms of the company that sued him, and en route, there a couple of left-field surprises which I won’t hint at, in case you’re one of the three people in the world who hasn’t read the book. The plot moves fast, the two main characters are intriguing, especially Lisbeth, and there is a real desire to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Larssen writes well, and his translator serves him well, and there is little of the flummery, pseudo-scientific and psychological claptrap which often pads out the pages – about as convincing as a pink £9 note – nor of the heavy detail so you can be conned into buying a fat book which only shows the author has a diligent research assistant.
And yet, in spite of being swept along, I was losing patience as the end approached. First, the crimes at the heart of the book are so bizarre, extensive and in some ways incredible, that the drama lessens; second, there is one coincidence too many; and third, climax follows climax in a way which is unsettling and promises surfeit rather than satisfaction. Lisbeth continues to engage and amuse, but the by the end, you are reading for her sake, not your own.
On my Peru trip, another traveller had the second volume in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. I read this with some reluctance, but a interest in what happened to Lisbeth. This starts where Dragon Tattoo leaves off, and I was intrigued by how he would develop the stories. The answer is, that he builds on all the worst parts of the earlier book, making an unengaging, unlikely story ever more fantastical, confusing, and alienating. I finished it, just, but took no pleasure in it – he lost the plot in every sense, and really has no grip on this book at all. For all I am intrigued by Lisbeth – and she is in dire trouble at the end of Played with Fire - I feel no desire at all to read the final book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest