{Book Review} The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millenium #1)

The sexy UK edition cover

“Once you start The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there’s no turning back. This debut thriller–the first in a trilogy from the late Stieg Larsson–is a serious page-turner rivaling the best of Charlie Huston and Michael Connelly. Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch–and there’s always a catch–is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.” 
–Dave Callanan*

It’s really hard trying to type something that makes sense when you’ve been reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for majority of the night. I didn’t have the wisdom to take notes, which I really should have, but now just means I have to write this review before my brain leaks out of my ears. Below are some random thoughts I had that I wrote at different times of the day, trying to piece together remnants of a review.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. I’ve seen it being recommended in various book clubs, and now there’s a Hollywood remake. I really hate watching movies before I read the book, and the premise seemed interesting, so I decided to borrow it from the library for the Christmas break and finish it before it shows in the local cinema. I opened the book with high expectations, which was fueled by the puzzling prologue. However, as the first hundred pages passed, I still couldn’t see what was so good about the novel. The next hundred pages passed, and no, not it either. And then I hit the next hundred pages.

The story is not that complicated to begin with. Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, sees his career go down the drain into the sewers after he was convicted for libel. Against all odds, corporate magnate by the name of Henrik Vanger offers him a job: solve the mystery of the unsolved disappearance of his niece, Harriet Vanger, which occurred thirty-seven years ago. The offer is preposterous: who in his right mind would offer millions for a case that even Sweden’s best detectives could not crack? But he took it. Along the way, he meets Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is as dangerous as she is thin. Together they comb through the vast Vanger family clan and everything else that happened the fateful day of Harriet’s disappearance.

The summary I just gave barely made a dent into the intricate plot and colorful cast of characters that followed. Stieg Larsson had woven a tale that takes some concentration if you want to figure out what was going on. There are so many character names and places that were hard to pronounce in my inner ear, which impeded my reading slightly. I just invented an easier pronunciation, though I did have some fun trying to say the Swedish names out loud.

I also have this thing with Mikael Blomkvist. I praise him for his morals and whatever Henrik Vanger praised him for at the end of the book (which I leave for you to read), but really, do all the women have to jump on him? He did a good job (on the investigations – I think I have to be specific on that part) throughout the book though, so I don’t really mind. His nobility is admirable enough for me to ignore his man-whore ways when it was apparent that he’s not going to change. To be fair, he’s really morally upright journalism-wise. The person who really had me sold was Lisbeth Salander. I think she is such an interesting character. Socially awkward but brilliant. We all know the stereotype. But somehow, she brings some fire into the book. She also has problems of her own, like having a new guardian who proved to be a masochistic rapist. How she gets her revenge on him just got me in full admiration of her. She does revenge right. Her character proved to be interesting until the end of the book, and it was mostly because of her that I kept on reading. Despite society’s usual take on tattooed punks on the brink of being institutionalized, you can’t help but root for whatever her complicated thoughts push her to do.

One thing that really irked me about the whole thing was how excruciatingly slow the beginning was. It was all financial journalism talk, something I know nothing of and didn’t interest me in the least. And then there were the really long backstories on the characters that could have been shorter. In fact, the whole book could have been shorter. I can’t blame Stieg Larsson, though; he died shortly after submitting the unpublished manuscripts for the trilogy. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I was well halfway into the book before things finally started picking up. It took me more than a week to finish the book, with the remaining half read and finished just last night. The beginning with all the financial jargon and details about Blomkvist’s life annoyed me for its length, but I accept that it is crucial for the explanation of why Blomkvist did what he did, agreeing to a case by an old man who was probably already a wacko.

I’m going to admit the book gave me chills. I mean, I’m a woman, and reading about heinous and disgustingly grotesque crimes against my gender was unsettling. In fact, the original title – which was in Swedish – was Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, which literally meant “Men Who Hated Women”. In my opinion, it fit the story infinitely better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though I can’t deny that a title like that was sexier, more subtle, and more mysterious, not to mention left more room for variation for the sequel titles.

I wouldn’t call the book overrated since I understood what people meant when they said it gets better, but I suggest you don’t expect it to be exciting from the start. The second half of the book is good, and finishing it felt like taking a gulp of fresh air, I was buried so deep within the story. That’s a mark of a good thriller, I think, so I recommend you read it. Refrain from doing so if you don’t like violence and sex and other gruesome bits, this book has lots of it (I doubt you would – this is a mystery/thriller after all). I like this book well enough that I want to read its sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and that in itself is good enough for me. Larsson skillfully incorporated his views on crimes on women and antisemitism, and I expect the next two books to still bear traces of his opinions, though not necessarily about the two previously mentioned. 

There’s this quote that I’ve been scrabbling to find at the dusty corners of my mind before I realized that it actually came from the ending parts of the book. It was a review on something Mikael Blomkvist published, but it mirrors what I think of Stieg Larsson and his explosive debut novel:

“It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.”

Now I suggest you pick it up and see for yourself if it’s right.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 4/5
Author: Stieg Larsson
Original Title: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor 
Original Language: Swedish
Translator: Reg Keeland (actually the pseudonym of Steven T. Murray)
Published: 2005
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller
P.S. There are currently two film adaptations made on this book: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (2009), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). I haven’t watched either mainly because I read the book before I watch the movie, on principle, but if I do get to watch them I’ll most probably write a review. No promises, though!