Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 1 January 2010

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I don’t normally review novels, but, to be honest, I don’t read a lot of them either, which is an incredible admission for a want-to-be author to make (actually, I’m a real author, just not a very successful one). Most of my reading is non-fiction, at least 90%, and when given a choice between a novel or a non-fiction book, I’ll invariably end up with the latter. There are always a stack of unread books in front of me, which are all non-fiction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an exception – this was a book I had to read – simply because I’d heard so much about it. It’s the first in a trilogy by Stieg Larsson, who unfortunately died before they became monstrously successful. The first won a Galaxy British Books award for the ‘Crime Thriller of the Year 2009’. I’m not sure if it has the same status in America as it has in the rest of the world, but, if it hasn’t, I expect that would change if the movie went international.

Larsson was not much younger than me, and was a journalist and editor-in-chief of Expo from 1999. He died in 2004, only 50 years old, just after he delivered all three manuscripts to his Swedish publisher. As a first novel, I’m extraordinarily impressed, and, from my own experience of publishing my first novel at a similar age, I suspect he must have been practicing the art of fiction well beforehand. Very few journalists make the jump from non-fiction to fiction (refer my post on Storytelling, Jul.09) even though the craft of creating easy-to-read yet meaningful and emotively charged prose is well hone. It’s a big leap from writing stories about real people and real events to imaginary scenarios populated by fictional yet believable characters. The craft of writing engaging dialogue looks deceptively simple, yet it can stump the most practiced wordsmith if they’ve never attempted it before.

Larsson has two protagonists, one middle-aged male and one mid-twenties female, who are opposites in almost every respect except intelligence. Mikael Blomkvist could easily be an alter-ego for Larsson, as he’s a financial investigative journalist who jointly runs a magazine with his ‘occasional lover’, Erika Berger, but, being an author myself, I don’t necessarily jump to such obvious conclusions. When people see an actor in a role on the screen, they often assume that that is what he or she must be like in real life, yet that’s the actor’s job: to make you believe the screen persona is a real person. Well, we authors have to create the same illusion – we are all magicians in that sense. There’s no doubt that Larsson used his inside-knowledge in developing his story and background for his character, but the personality of Blomkvist may be quite different to Larsson. In fact, there is no reason not to assume that his other protagonist, albeit a different age, sex and occupation, may be closer in personality to its creator. Having said that, Lisbeth Salander (who is the girl with the dragon tattoo) is a dysfunctional personality, possibly with a variant of Asberger’s that makes one pause. The point is that she’s just as well drawn as Blomkvist, perhaps even better.

My point is that authors, myself included, often create characters who have characteristics that we wish we had but know we haven’t. Blomkvist is an easy-going, tolerant person with liberal views, who charms the pants off women, but has an incisive mind that sees through deception. Larsson may have had these qualities or some of these qualities and added others. We all do this to our protagonists.

One of the strengths of this book is that, whilst it entertains in a way that we expect thrillers to, it exhibits a social conscience with a strong feminist subtext. There are 4 parts, comprising 29 chapters, bookended with a prologue and epilogue. Each part has its own title page, and they all contain a statistic concerning violence against women in Sweden. I will quote the last one in the book, on the title page for Part 4, Hostile Takeover:

“92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the Police.”

One of the things I personally like about this book is that it challenges our natural tendency to judge people by appearances. Larsson does this with Salander all through the book, where people continually misjudge her, and, all through her fictional life, she’s been undervalued and written off as a ‘retard’ and social misfit.

As a young person growing up, two of the most influential people in my life were eccentrics, both women, one my own age and one 2 generations older. This has made me more tolerant and less judgemental than most people I know. To this extent I can identify with Blomkvist. It’s one of the resonances I felt most strongly in this novel.

Larsson is a very good writer on all fronts. It is halfway through the book (comprising over 500 pages, approx. 150,000 words long) before anything truly dramatic happens on the page. Beforehand we have lots of mystery and lots of intrigue, but not a lot of action or real suspense. It’s a great credit to Larsson that he keeps you engaged for that entire time (it’s a genuine page-turner) without resorting to mini-climaxes. Dan Brown could learn a lot from Stieg Larsson. Brown is a master of riddles, but Larsson’s writing has a depth, both in characterisation and subtext, that’s way over Brown’s head.

There’s nothing much else to say – I’m yet to read the other two in the series. I assume they are self-contained stories with the same protagonists. One is naturally interested in how their relationship develops, both professionally and personally. I often believe that what raises one novel above another is the psychological believability of the characters, to coin my own phrase. Last year I reviewed the film, Watchmen (Oct. 09), a movie based on a graphic novel, but it was the depth of characterisation, along with its substantial subtext, that lifted it above the expected norm for comic-book movies. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in a similar class of fiction. I don’t judge books or films by their genre; I judge them, primarily, by how well-written they are – it’s probably the criterion we all use, but we’re not consciously aware of.

5 comments:

larryniven said...

Very interesting - sounds like I'll definitely have to check it out. Just one thing, though...

"Dan Brown could learn a lot from Stieg Larsson."

...this assumes that he's capable of learning. I myself sorta doubt it.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Larry,

The English version I read is published in Great Britain, translated by Reg Keeland.

The other 2 books in the trilogy are: The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Here is a very good review in an Aussie daily.

The story contains an unexpected Australian connection that rings true to a local inhabitant (like me) so Larsson obviously visited here at least once, hence the reviewer's reference to 'Tennant creek'.

Regards, Paul.

Stieg Larsson guy said...

it's a fantastic series.

Mirza Ghalib said...

The story is gripping..for those who love crime thrillers..its just way too awesome..The characters are strong,they leave an impression on your mind..The plot is nice,agreed there could have been a few less pages where the book goes dragging a bit,but then it all adds up to your reading experience and isn't that boring..I liked it very much and even went on reading the other two volumes of this trilogy..and I guess it is perfectly great..the plot stays in your mind even afterwards for awhile and the characters look so real...If you like reading,reading smart crime fiction,reading a book you can get lost in...I'd say go for it :)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Mirza,

Yes, I read all 3 and I think the second is one of the best thrillers I've read, and then I saw all 3 films (the Swedish versions) with Noomi Rapace (I didn't see the Daniel Craig version, though it had good reviews).

The Scandinavians seem to be the best at crime fiction, including TV. I don't know if you've seen any of the Wallander series (again the Swedish version is better than the British one). I'm about to read The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (the latest Wallander thriller translated into English) and highly recommended by my sister who's a bit of a connoisseur of thrillers.

Regards, Paul.