Monday, December 29, 2008

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson

This book has been on a ton of Top 2008 Books lists, and has garnered a bunch of enthusiastic reviews. It was even one of the top recommendations from, so it looked like a book I was going to have to read. I ended up getting it on audio for my iPod.

I make the point that I listened to rather than read the book, because I firmly believe that the experience is different. For one obvious thing, the time I invest in the book is very different. With an audiobook, I can't skip ahead, so skim through parts, or look ahead or back to check things. I am bound to the pace of the reader, which is much slower than I can read.

The quality of the time is different too. With an audiobook, I can read while doing chores: walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, driving. With a book, I pretty much have to sit down and focus: the opposite of listening.

So, I can accept that my experience of this book is different than it would have been had I read it, and I'd welcome hearing from people what their experience is in the different formats. My experience, however, was mediocre. This is an interesting book, but surely there are better books than this published this year.

Quick plot summary: Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist forced to take a leave of absence from his job due to losing a libel case. He is hired by a retired industrialist to investigate the disappearance of his 16 year old grand-niece nearly forty years before. He works with the eponymous girl of the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth Salander, who has incredible research and hacking skills and they solve the mystery. They then prove the truth behind the libel case and take down a rouge financier. They don't end up happily ever after, but there are two more books in this series, in which they will likely do so.

So, let's start at the beginning. The title. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" puts the focus on Salander (everyone is addressed by surname, except when a very large family makes that confusing). With a title like that, I'd expect that the tattoo itself had some meaning, or was a clue, or something. (Work with me on this one.) For example, maybe all the girls who were drug runners, or prostitutes, or grifters identified themselves with this tattoo. Maybe the dragon was a clue to the specifice mastermind behind the plan: "I should have seen it--translated into Mandarin, 'dragon' is pronounced exactly like his name!" Imagine the book Raymond Chandler would have written with a title like this!

But no. Salander has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder, a loop on her bicep and ankle, a rose on her calf, a Chinese character on her hip, a ring in her lip and one in her eyebrow. The tattoos are remarked upon, mostly in passing. There is a little more discussion of the piercings--are they okay? Would I let my daughter get one? What does that mean about her professional abilities? But ultimately the tattoos etc. are no more important than that. The book could as easily have been called "The 90 Pound Investigator," or "The Girl on the Kowasaki Motorbike." The tattoo isn't particularly significant in any way.

The original Swedish title apparently translates to "Men Who Hate Women" which admittedly sounds like a self-help book, like "Women Who Love Too Much" or something. However, the original title actually focusses on the mystery and its effects, rather than one character. Sure, Salander is the most interesting character in the book, but she is really only one of two main characters, and Blomkvist gets entirely shorted by the US title.

Okay, so we move inside the book and address the plot itself. Large and wealthy family owned business. CEO is childless, and determines his (then 16 year old) grandniece Harriet is the best person to be the next head of the company. Everybody is on the family island for a meeting when a terrible truck crash cuts off the only bridge for 12 or 24 hours--a significant amount of time. Only the next day does anybody notice that Harriet is missing. So, when Blomkvist his briefed on the mystery, much evidence is given to prove that there was no way she could have left the island, making it the epitome of a "locked room" mystery. The island was searched, and her body never found.

Well, I don't know about you, but all this emphasis on how she couldn't have left the island left me looking for how she could have. So much strenuous misdirection makes me suspicious, and so while everybody is nodding and accepting how she must have still been on the island, I am busy thinking up ways she could have left it, willingly or not. Which, it turns out, is only the first of several plot solutions I guessed well before any of the characters.

This is one of the first books I have read that attempts to be fully realistic about the pervasive technology in our lives. Everyone has mobile phones; when Blomkvist moves to the island to start his investigation, he calls the phone company to get DSL. The main characters do their writing and note-taking and evidence storage on their MacBooks. Most of the investigations start with Google.

So, when a question arises of how Salander gets such good information, is it really any surprise to learn that she is a hacker? She gets details about her subjects that are substantially more private than any of her co-workers get--how do you think she came up with the information that a job applicant was a closet pederast? Of course she hacked into his computer--and everybPody else's she investigates. Score now stands: Me-2, Blomkvist-0.

It takes most of the book for Blomkvist and Salander to come around to beginning to suspect Harriet's older brother Martin. Excuse me! I am supposed to believe that an investigative journalist who specializes in reporting on financial crimes never once considered looking critically at the current CEO of the company? Isn't it about the first rule of investigation to "Follow the Money?" Who benefits from the crime? Everybody knew that Harriet was being groomed to be the next CEO; after she disappeared, her older brother got the job. There is Number One Suspect right there! But no, it takes some laborious nonsense about reading old newspaper negatives and blowing up blurry pictures using Photoshop before Our Heroes even think to look at him. This is just sloppy, isn't it?

The family is full of repulsive old folks; abusive drunks, anti-Semites, Nazi sympathizers. Everybody hates everybody else for the most part, and so when one foul old drunk lives in a cabin on the complete other side of the island, away from everybody else, and falls off a cliff and drowns while drunk, nobody even whispered that he might have been pushed? Of course he was pushed! You suspected that too, I know you did. Almost nobody just falls off a cliff and drowns by accident in a novel--not if they are broadly disliked and live isolated from potential witnesses! Me-3. Blomkvist-0.

If this were an Agatha Christie novel, I'd just be patting myself on the back for spotting the plot so successfully. However, this novel is much darker than Christie ever dreamed of being, and the sheer horror of what Larsson puts in his book made me deeply uncomfortable. This is where the original title would have warned people off--as Blomkvist and Salander investigate Harriet's disappearance, they find evidence that the family is connected to a number of grisly murders of women. Horrible murders; serious sexual assault, women bound and tortured to death. I don't even want to think about the horrible things that Larsson has chosen to put into his book, and I suspect anybody who writes so much about so many unthinkable things. Women's bodies are abused in so many ways in this book it's revolting.

Sure, most of the horrible things are from reports of old murders--they are not shown in the "real time" of the novel, and they are further distanced by their remoteness in time. Still, Larsson puts in enough detail to be truly troublesome, and I can't expiate that sin by granting that book claims that men who do that to women are maniacs. Sure they are, but what are the people who write about such acts in a novel?

Which brings me to another flaw in this plot of this book. The old murders are tied together as being perversions of the laws listed in Leviticus, and the mutilations of the victims' bodies are in some fashion related to ritual offerings, and the conclusion is that the murderer is a religious nut who hates women. We also see that the ritualistic behavior continues to the present day, with the mutilation of a cat having been done in the family crypt rather than in a basement/garage or out in the woods.

So why, when we finally meet Martin in his torturing mode, is there not a whiff of religious mania about him? He gets quite a melodramatic monologue about the god-like feeling of having a life in his hands--but not a thing about women being bad, or his need to extirpate his sin, or anything even remotely religious at all. Why did Martin--who possesses a well equipped soundproof torture chamber in his own basement--feel the need to dismember the cat in the family crypt? Finally, we are told that for Martin, the real thrill was in stalking and capturing a woman who wouldn't be missed--no relgious psychosis there.

So, as we skid into the final chapters of this book, we are faced with the solution to the mystery--16 year old is abused by her drunk father, she pushes him into the water in self-defense, only to find her brother intends to continue the same treatment. So, she runs away with some help so she isn't found and brought back to the intolerable situation. It's creepy that we had to get to that solution through the serial killings of dozens of women to figure out what is pretty obvious to start with. I felt dirty and corrupted for having been dragged through such muck.

Oh, and by the way, that libel case? Salander hacks into the victor's computer system, and gets all the incriminating information necessary to lead to an arrest, the guy flees, and is found dead not long after. Probably a mob execution, we figure, several paragraphs before we are told so. Was this necessary? Does it tell us anything more than we already know about plot, character, motivation? No. What we do get is Larsson's fantasy about what should happen when a journalist breaks a story about shady financial dealings--it becomes a huge media story, all the sloppy journalists get shamed for their failing to ask the tough questions, the government moves to create oversight and regulation to prevent such shenannigans, and Blomkvist is vindicated and lionized, plus he gets to publish a book that sells out its first run and has to be re-printed, and he rides off into the sunset to get laid. The End.

So, let's talk about Blomkvist. He's a weirdly passive guy for an investigative journalist, and seems to have been created to be Larsson's idea of what a Man Who Doesn't Hate Women would be like. Larsson has crafted a wonderfully spiky character in Salander, and then waters her down by having her fall in love with Blomkvist. Why does she love him? Well, the sex is good, and he doesn't ask her personal questions, and he doesn't get mad when she does outrageous things to him, and he doesn't push her to do things she doesn't want to do. So does a dog, except for the sex.

Blomkvist has a brief affair with one of the women of The Family, and when she decides to break it off, he just shrugs and basically says "whatever." Which, come to think of it, was his response to her initiating the affair. Now, I totally value a decent guy over a "bad boy" as dating material, but this guy has as much personality as a piece of soggy toast. He's just not really there, in any meaningful way--his appeal is that he is so self-effacing that he doesn't create any obstacle to the women around him. If that were a character I could actually believe in, and find understandably attractive, then I might have had a better reaction to this book.

Finally, a word about the writing. I'm going to ease off a bit here and blame it on translation, but a great deal of the "description" in the novel is merely a list of nouns: we get a list of every item of furniture in Blomkvist's office, his apartment, the guest cottage where he stays for most of the novel. We get all the ingredients of the sandwiches he makes for himself. We get a list of how many pairs of socks and long underwear he puts on for the winter. We get the model numbers of the MacBooks the characters use. We even (I am not making this up) get the square footage of every living space anyone enters. I can hope that in the original Swedish this was more graceful or elegant; in English it reads like a lot of inventories.

So, ultimately, I'd give this book a B+ if I were grading it. It's uneven at best, and rather creepier than I think the author intended.