Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

Now, I must admit that I am not the target audience for Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but with all of the widespread praise the mystery had been receiving, I thought it may be worth my time. Or at least it would be a fun waste of time. It was, instead, a frustrating waste of time.

It's bad hen you come in with pretty low expectations and are still let down. I tend to be annoyed with genre conventions, but that wasn't even the problem here. In fact, it probably would have been a better book if it had tried to adhere to a standard format. Instead, we get what amounts to hundreds of pages of meandering, useless back story, no plot development, and not actual progression. I say all of this without criticizing the line-level quality of the writing (it is dry and dull).

I'd like to summarize the plot, the central storyline, here, but it so convoluted that is not worth the paragraph it would take to write it. There is a mystery that involves two dozen or so family members, and a secondary mystery that sort of bookends the first mystery. Then there are another twenty characters, each with Swedish names that make them hard to distinguish from other characters (Don't miss Nora Ephron's New Yorker piece if you too struggle with this book).

Around two-hundred pages in, after being sufficiently frustrated and confused, the action begins. It is for this action that we're meant to enjoy these sorts of books, right? On a personal level, I enjoyed the concept of Mikael Blomkvist holed up in a spartan guest house in northern Sweden, tasked with chronicling a family history and attempting to solve a murder along the way. I also enjoyed the character of Lisbeth Salander, for all of her supposedly shocking characteristics, but I do think Larsson misunderstands her at times, giving her thoughts and actions (some critical) that are wholly inconsistent.

When the action gets good, when things are building to a climax, though, Larson lets some events happen so matter-of-factly that they fall flat. A couple of key moments in the novel happen without any sort of build up. Its as if the author needed something to happen, and instead of leading us to it, it just happens. When I wanted more of what the genre should have served up, the book let me down.

The action only lasts a few hundred pages, and then we return to the meandering, the other irrelevant characters, and the ancillary mystery (which, like the other, is a let down). The last hundred pages of the book were so frustrating to get through, so indulgent and self-serving. I could not help but wonder where the editor was for this book. This isn't a Stephen King book, where you pretty much let him write whatever he wants to write, slap a cover on it, and wait for the money to pour in. This is a debut novel. Sure, there had been international success before it ever appeared in the U.S., but couldn't we have pulled it into shape first?

Unless you're so inspired by the cover that you have to read this book (it was one key reason I was interested), don't. Wait for the David Fincher film. Or, better yet, see the Swedish film, which is getting good reviews. Though maybe you shouldn't believe the reviews.

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