Back in spring 2010 I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, having heard that it was pretty good. I had intended to review it, not least because I promised this chap that I would give him my thoughts on it, but idleness took over and I never bothered. Also, I read the second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, immediately afterwards and I thought I might review the whole trilogy. Unfortunately, I’d kind of had enough by that point so I didn’t get around to reading the third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest until last month. So now I have some free time and some rather strong opinions (who me?) on the books, I’ve decided to write a review of sorts.
Firstly, the good. There is a fair bit I will criticise about the books, probably unfairly, but since when has this blog been about fairness? This blog is about my opinions dammit! Erm, anyway. The first book is set on an island somewhere off the coast of Sweden. This was probably the book’s biggest draw for me: I will read (or watch) pretty much anything set in Scandinavia (likewise Japan, but that’s not really relevant now). I find thrillers set in cold, snowy climates to be far more atmospheric than those set in deserts or big cities. The Economist noted that Nordic crime fiction seems to be pretty successful, so I’m clearly not the only one. I liked Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow for its atmosphere (snow kills all sound, making complete silence actually achievable, something almost impossible in most places). I also loved Gorky Park and Polar Star which although not set in Scandinavia offer a similar atmosphere provided by the climate of Moscow in winter and the Barent’s Sea respectively.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an intriguing locked-room murder mystery scaled up to a small island. The potential perpertators largely belong to a disfunctional family who run a sprawling but faltering industrial conglomerate now on its third generation of family executives. The intrigue amongst the family members is superb, and probably strikes a note with those familiar with Sweden’s real-life family-run industrial conglomerates which see board positions shuffled between siblings, offspring, and cousins and whose actual ownership configuration is an impossible puzzle for a taxman to solve. Larsson also throws into the mix a foolproof plot device: Nazis. Any story which has Nazis lurking in the background is a good one (James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam being an exception, I thought the Nazi angle in that didn’t fit at all). I don’t know what it is about Nazis, but they make the best baddies. Take a look at the Indiana Jones films, for example:
Raiders of the Lost Ark: baddies = Nazis =brilliant
Temple of Doom: baddies = Indians = okay
Last Crusade: baddies = Nazis = brilliant
Crystal Skull: baddies = Russians = crap
An uncontestable formula, I’m sure you can agree. Anyway, where was I? That’s right. Certain family members had links to Nazis before and during WWII, something which was not unusual in Sweden. So in one flick of the pen, Larsson introduces murky business conglomerates and Nazi associations into the story which, if set anywhere else would cause a rolling of the eyes but, this being Sweden, hits pretty close to home. It is this, along with the island’s mysteries, which make the book good. As an intriguing thriller, it does its job well. The reader is kept guessing, the hero of the book – a journalist which we’ll talk about in a minute – engages in some good old Tintin-style sleuthing which includes digging out old photos and tracking down witnesses from events which occurred decades ago, and the conclusion – although not tremendously satisfying – is sound enough. At least you don’t chuck the book in the corner saying “What the hell?”
And for me, it was the setting, the familial intrigue, the island, and the original mystery which was the main strength of the book. The weakness, I felt, was in the main two characters. Oddly, it is the characters which many feel drive the trilogy’s success, but for me both of them were flawed, one fundamentally and the other needlessly. This is why I consider the first book to be the only one which is worthy of the praise, the latter two books focus on the characters established in the first one, minus the disfunctional family. And minus the Nazis. There’s my formula being proven again.
The central male character of the trilogy is the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He is a free-spirited, brilliant investigative journalist in his mid-40s with rock-solid principles (he occupies the moral high ground even from a prison cell) and who is given a free pass by his friends, family, and colleagues to behave however he wants – which is usually without any concern for others nor accepting any responsibility – because, I think, he has such sound principles (did I mention them?) and he is so brilliant (did I mention that?). On top of that, every woman he comes across seems to turn into a gibbering teenager desperate to get him into bed. Can you see what the problem is here? Larsson, a Swedish journalist in his mid-40s invents a character of a Swedish journalist in his mid-40s who cannot put a foot wrong (at least not with any real consequences) and goes around beating off women with a shitty stick. This has mid-life crisis written all over it. Credulity is seriously stretched in places. We have the chief editor of the magazine for which Blomkvist works, an attractive, highly-professional married woman called Erika Berger, engaged in an ongoing affair with Blomkvist – with the full knowledge and consent of her husband! Yeah, like that often happens. I mean, blokes get to bang their female bosses all the time and their husbands just murmur something about “I know only he can satisfy you” all the time, no? But even this I could believe if he was trying it on with anything in a skirt, but alas no. Blomkvist stands aloof and the women plead with him to bed them, and once he has done so he rolls over and says words to the effect of “Y’know love, I can shag who I like and I intend to carry on doing so” and the grateful woman replies with “Sure! Sure! You shag who you like, I won’t mind, but if ever you feel like coming around here and giving me one, here I am. Any time you like!” ‘Cos aye, women are just like that!
I’m not the only one who finds this incredible. Melanie Newman writes for the feminist magazine The F-Word, and also happens to be by sister (family get free plugs on this blog), and she has this to say:
Larsson’s hero, Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist in his 40s, is only slightly more believable. While something of a moral crusader, constantly railing against other reporters who fail to dig deep into corporate corruption, Blomkvist – or “Bonkvist” as he has been dubbed by some Amazon.com reviewers – is far from an old-fashioned sexual moralist. He’s “a big hit with women” who has had several love affairs and “a great many casual flings”. “An obscure journalist,” we’re later told, “once even urged him to seek help for his sex addiction.” Blomkvist is no sexual predator, however: it’s the women that make the moves.
In the first book, we’re told that Blomkvist has a daughter who he doesn’t see much. His marriage broke down because he couldn’t stop having sex with his long-term mistress and boss, Erica, who has her husband’s permission to sleep with her lover. When Blomkvist moves to a small town to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, he’s only been in his new home five minutes when a woman is stripping off for him. Erica isn’t at all bothered when she walks in on them both – she’s happy to share. Later Salander persuades Blomkvist to sleep with her and, naturally, falls in love with him. We’re repeatedly told that the age gap doesn’t matter for her.
It’s not hard to see what Larsson has done here: he’s created a character which he himself longed to be. I mean, who wouldn’t? It would be like me writing a book featuring a brilliant engineer who turns up when he likes, makes up for weeks of absenteeism by knocking up a subsea separation design which cause his male colleagues to drop their jaws in awe, whilst he quietly bones the high-flying female project director despite him having an orgy with the admin girls only that morning. In reality, if you don’t turn up you get fired, your input to any design will be insignificant and in any case somebody else will get the glory, the project director will be an old battleaxe and it’s all you can do to get the admin girls to book the conference room let alone get an orgy on the go.
In creating a character who is the author’s ideal, Larsson is not alone. Years ago I read this rubbish, Mallory’s Oracle, and quickly got tired of a heroine who was a beautiful, super-intelligent former orphan who gave everybody the cold shoulder even as they swooned all over her. Here’s what one commenter wrote:
I don’t require a main character I can like or “identify with,” so I don’t mind that Kathy is mostly unlikeable. What I do mind is that she seems like such an obvious authorial fantasy, a “Mary Sue,” if I can use a term from fanfiction. She’s tall, impossibly beautiful, cool, tough, slim, green-eyed, and brilliant; she’s a computer wizard who consistently reduces men — from her boss to her father’s friends to her grizzled cop colleagues to her business partner — to lovesick jellies who are happy to exist in her thrall and to let her get away with almost anything. Finally, of course, she both saves the day AND gets romantically rescued by her various knights.
We’re constantly told how many people staunchly love and are charmed by Kathy despite her sociopathic inability to respond to them, but we’re never actually *shown* any aspects of her character or behavior that would make these reactions plausible.
Obvious authorial fantasy. That adequately describes my reaction to Larsson’s Blomkvist. What’s more, the unrealistic portrayal of Blomkvist is hardly going to be helped by the character being played by Daniel Craig in the Hollywood adaptation of the novel. Now our intrepid journalist has an athlete’s body and reminds everyone of James Bond. Job done, I think.
Sadly, the other main character, Lisbeth Salander, is much more believable but has been subject to a complete cop-out by Larsson. To describe this, I’ll refer to this post by Pootergeek who is writing about one of the Harry Potter films:
The real problem with Harry Potter is what ultimately did for the Star Trek franchise. There is no sense of genuine danger or threat because, instead of using pre-existing elements of the story to resolve tension, Rowling just pulls an answer from nothingness, adopting Trek’s subatomic-particle-of-the-week approach to all cliffhangers.
“Captain, the ship will be destroyed within seconds if we can’t stabilize the hull!”
“Perhaps we can re-route the phasers to produce a stream of deus-ex-machinons!”
How can you give a toss about a story in which at any minute you know Rowling is going to do everything but tell you “it was all a dream”?
Lisbeth Salander’s main gift is an ability to hack into any computer any time she wants provided she has a laptop (or even a Palm) and an internet connection. It takes her a matter of minutes to break any password of any computer in the world, remotely. Well that’s handy! So whenever Salander finds herself in a tight spot, a quick flutter of the keyboard and suddenly she’s a billionnaire with a new identity. Or she has her adversary’s location and movements right in front of her. Thriller writers should take great care in choosing a special ability for their heroes (and their villains, for that matter). In fact, most times it’s better they have none at all. In Peter Hoeg’s novel, Miss Smilla’s upbringing in Greenland gave her an unusual – but entirely believable – ability to interpret footprints in the snow, leading her to question the circumstances by which her neighbour, a small boy, fell from a roof. Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko has no gift at all save for a plodding stubbornness which at times borders on machoism. When faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, or backed into a corner, they need to think their way out of it, and this is what keeps the reader interested.
Making somebody a brilliant hacker is not far short of giving them an ability to fly. Hacking is pretty damned hard to do, and (from what I can gather, I am no expert) most hackers target large corporations or government computers for the challenge they present, and once inside stumble across any particular information by chance. It is rare you hear about a hacker targetting a specific indvidual and coming away with such stuff as security camera footage from where he’s been hanging out. In fact, you never hear about it because it would be damned near impossible. Going back to Mallory’s Oracle, here’s what somebody wrote about the heroine of that story, who was also a brilliant computer hacker:
Also, this woman hasn’t met a computer that she can’t hack into! Come on, without this superhuman ability, the whole story falls apart.
Quite. And it’s equally applicable to Larsson’s story. But Salander’s talents don’t stop there: she also has a photographic memory, enabling her to remember whole reams of text having browsed them for mere seconds. The character’s flaws are welcome, especially after a few pages of Blomkvist fighting off the chicks. She is socially inept and has been appallingly treated by the Swedish authorities as a child. Here I think Larsson had a good story going: the fact that it is possible for a functioning adult to be declared incompetent and have their lives placed in the hands of a guardian who holds considerable authority over every aspect of their lives is something worth exploring in a novel which is clearly intended to take a swipe at certain aspects of Swedish society. Salander is also physically unattractive with a teenager’s body covered in tattoos and piercings, although I can’t help think that this description, coupled with her hacking abilities, will have teenage geeks thrapping in their bedrooms nonetheless. But Larsson couldn’t resist giving her a boob job by the second book, and she was still getting laid anyway. Not so unnattractive, then. (By the time Hollywood has finished with her, she’s going to be your usual fit model running about in leathers, chasing Daniel Craig.) Her personality stinks, but that causes as much frustration in those around her as it does in the reader, so that forms a solid basis of the character (although you have scant sympathy for her). But then in the second book Larsson has her single-handedly kicking the shit out of two tough-as-nails bikers, something my sister points out in her article as being utterly ridiculous. In short, Larsson has ruined what would otherwise be an interesting character by giving her a superhuman gift, stopping short of completing the flaws she is cursed with, and throwing in a few silly scenes to boot.
With the two central characters failing, the reader is left needing a decent story to keep him interested. As I said earlier, the first book provides this but alas the second two fall somewhat short. To be fair, there is enough to keep the reader turning the pages, and it’s better than reading Dan Brown, but I’m not surprised I took a year’s break between the second and third installments. The events got more and more predictable, and over three books the author’s irritating habits start to grate a bit. Firstly, there is all this pseudo-feminist nonsense scattered about. In the first book this takes the form of abused women statistics in Sweden, which I suppose sort of fits a story involving, as it does, abused women. (I believe the original Swedish title was The Men Who Hate Women). In the second book, Larsson ditches the feminist stuff in favour of short discussions on mathematical formulae, which Salander is trying to solve in her head. This is of no relevance to the story whatsoever, other than perhaps a device with which to build Salander’s character and hammer home the point that she is really clever. The third book prefaces parts with random facts (I assume they are facts) about Amazons and warrior women and how great they all are, or something like that. The whole thing, indeed the whole trilogy, seems to be a plea for women to accept…well, accept what? The books? The author? I don’t know, but the feminist market might have been better captured if Blomkvist could have left his cock in his trousers, or at least the female characters spent less time on the end of it.
The other annoying habit is the author’s insistence in writing emails as emails (which are excruciating to read) and writing out the technical specification of any computers Salander owns. This fails on two levels. For starters, other than those wanking teenagers I mentioned earlier, nobody gives a shit how much RAM her iBook has. Secondly, computers date. Sure, when it was written the computer would have been the dog’s bollocks, but five years later those with any computer knowledge will be asking “Why’s she using that crap?”
What I wish the author had done was to put his efforts into strengthening the first book and forget about the trilogy. There was a lot which could have been done with the Nazis and murky conglomerate angles but instead the story took us off down another route in the interests of preserving the characters. And that’s the problem, in the last two books the characters are the story, and they are just not good enough to carry it. My final verdict: read the first one, if you like the characters and aren’t irritated by the author, read the other two. Otherwise, stop there.