In 2004, an author and journalist named Stieg Larsson would pass away at the young age of 50, but he wasn’t through with his career yet. In 2005, his will allowed the publication of three previously finished manuscripts of what would later be known as the Millennium series. Now I’ve read all three of the books (The Girl in the Spider’s Web doesn’t count), and I honestly think that the first book is the zenith of the series. Which is why I re-read the novel, and am going to compare it to the 2011 David Fincher adaptation.
However, I’m going to begin by addressing the novel first.
The book is something that should be regarded as above its peers, but not because it’s revolutionary. Actually, the reason why it’s better than whatever tripe is at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, is because it does everything right without taking too many risks. It’s essentially a pulp fiction novel. Not a hardboiled crime novel. Blomkvist doesn’t give interior monologues or let his dual .45s do all the talking. Instead, he runs around on an island following up leads to a fifty year old cold case.
The attractive features of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that it takes the old constants of the crime thriller genres, and just sticks to them. The ending of the book doesn’t try to be preachy, it’s more like “Yeah, shit happened, but we can’t change the past.”. In fact I’d say that looking for some kind of moral or theme is kind of stupid. Larsson isn’t trying to be some sort of professor on utilitarian ethics. To be honest though, he does have one thing to say about humans: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is exemplified by the events that take place. Now I’m avoiding spoilers, but towards the end I’ll leave a space so that you can enjoy either the book or film.
The characters however, are a different story. The main character is Mikael “Kalle” Blomkvist, a jaded investigative journalist who just got sued for libel and defamation. Protagonist number two is Lisbeth Salander, a mysterious woman who is the epitome of cynicism and distrust. She works for a security company and yada yada yada. You don’t come here to read about what the character’s like. You either go to wikipedia or watch the film or read the book for that. You’re here for my personal opinion of the character. Well for one, Stieg should’ve actually met someone who hates everyone around them. Chances are they don’t dress all in black, have piercings everywhere, and tattoo every inch of their body.
Now to be honest, I don’t exactly give a rat’s ass about the fact that she looks like what every person over the age of 40 thinks a self harmer should appear to be. After you read into her history in the other two books, you kind of come to accept it. It’d just be nice if she looked less like she belonged at a Black Veil Brides concert, and more like a club DJ. Cause believe me, some of the most cynical I know are actually people you’d see at an EDM festival or a Skrillex concert.
But at the end of the day, the real reason why I excuse Lisbeth’s characterization as the “edgy one” is because it works. The fact that she’s the edgy one gives her a very distinct persona that isn’t hard to expand upon. When you’re reading the book, you know it’s her talking because she swears and comes across as very cold and crass. That doesn’t make her the most detailed character, but at the very least it adds some kind of depth to her, even if it is just a few inches deeper than the ground.
As for Mikael, he’s honestly hard to pinpoint. Lisbeth has predetermined morals that allows her to see possible moral dilemmas in black and white solutions. Mikael has issues as he has duties to both people individually, as a human, and people as a society, as a journalist. This becomes a bit of an issue later on. As for who he is as a person? He’s your standard pulp fiction detective. Y’know, without a badge or P.I.’s license. He womanizes, is divorced, smokes, five o’clock shadow, etc. However, he isn’t cynical or crass. He’s actually quite the optimist, even though he occasionally becomes a little jaded. But overall, he doesn’t suck.
His moral ambiguity is something of a mainstay with the pulp characters, but it works out in the end and is rarely tested. This can be seen as either a lack of characterization or poor plot. I choose to see it as Larsson’s inability to offend different readers. So I guess a mix of both. However, at the end of the day, I’d say it works. His refusal to get ethically moral is just another good reason why the book isn’t preachy and chooses the “the more things change, the more they stay the same” route.
Now onto why it’s a frontrunner in the “good mystery/thrillers” department.
Well for one thing the clues don’t suck. Don’t worry I won’t spoil it. But I must confess, if you made a timeline that mapped out the different clues that Mikael figures out, it makes sense. It’s not some random deus ex machina where it’s like “Hey, we’re gonna have these two just bum around and then towards the last few chapters we’re gonna have the culprit practically give himself away with a fireworks display!”. Sure, the first clue is a little hard to get down, but then you’re like “It’s not that ridiculous.”. Although granted, that might just be me.
Another reason as to why the novel is good, is because of the fact that the case isn’t boring or mundane. In fact, Stieg knows exactly how to draw someone in. All the details of the mystery that Blomkvist gets are quite effectively presented by Stieg, or, in other words, they make sense. The way that these cases (because the book has more than one) is the especially interesting part. The characters present their mysteries like conspiracy theorists, going on about backroom deals that happened during some historical events. Which is one of the greatest aspects about the presentation. The sparknotes version of the case can be infinitely more interesting than the detailed version. And to Larsson’s credit, he doesn’t let Blomkvist leave any stone unturned. Every fact of the case is investigated fully by Mikael. This is something that any writer should remember. That is, if the stone that wasn’t unturned leads to a sequel. Then it’s ok I guess. If the sequel doesn’t suck, that is.
Overall, it’s a good book. I re-read it in a day, but it’s kind of lengthy. Just give yourself a week to get through it. You might want to read the rest of the series. Just remember that it’s not there to give you some lecture on ethics of humanity or the terrible qualities of humans. It’s just a crime novel that just wants to let you have a good time.
Tomorrow, I’m gonna review the movie. If I have enough time, I might even be able to compare the two as well.