So, I’m a bit behind the times when it comes to trendy books. Several years ago, when everyone was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I was puttering and reading more comics than anything else. After it was recommended to me by my parents in 2012 or 2013(Hi, parents!) I watched the first part of the Canal+ TV version of the Swedish films* and figured that I’d check out the book.
So here it is, my thoughts on The girl with the dragon tattoo (Swedish title: lit. Men who hate women). I’m undecided as of yet whether or not I’ll do posts for the rest of the series.
*And people think keeping track of superhero franchises is complicated …
Brief plot summary
Mikael Blomkvist is an editor at the magazine Millennium. Having just lost a libel case against the wealthy Hans-Erik Wennerström, he receives a deferred prison sentence and must pay damages. Hired by another wealthy Swede, Blomkvist is tasked with solving the disappearance of a young girl nearly 40 years previously. Promised concrete evidence against Wennerström if he succeeds, Blomkvist finds himself teaming up with the socially awkward hacker Lisbeth Salander.
So how is it?
I liked it more than I was expecting to. I’m usually immediately skeptical of something that I see so many people reading on the train (or that gets advertised on the train), which was one of the reasons it took me so long to read it. Still, I can recognize that it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s depictions of violence against women are definitely too intense for some people, and the thematic elements can be a huge turn-off, depending on the reader’s interpretation.
I think the novel is interesting from one perspective especially: Sweden is frequently held up as some sort of utopian society by plenty of people on the Left. That this book (and the series more broadly) was written intentionally to expose some major issues in contemporary Swedish society helps to emphasize the dangers of over-romanticizing real-world cultures.
Some people might not like the sheer number of themes presented, which is fair. Personally I felt like the various thematic threads were deeply interconnected, and that was part of the point. What I read as a book about how societal structures enable and even encourage abuse, how abusers can easily work the foster care system to their advantage, and how easy it is for good people to protect Nazis, serial killers, and rapists.
I’ve read some commentators who felt like the book was endorsing neoliberalism and was advocating for a misogynistic worldview. That’s pretty much the opposite of what I took away from it, and I’m not really sure where they’re coming from, but it’s apparently a possible interpretation.
It may seem like I’m focussing on the sociopolitical commentary more than the mystery novel/thriller aspect, but looking back on the series it’s the sociopolitical criticism that I remember and it was the element that kept me reading the series after I read the first one.
As a mystery novel, it’s okay but not particularly shocking or groundbreaking. It’s essentially a cold case locked room mystery, and while the identity of the perpetrator isn’t particularly difficult to guess Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation is entertaining enough.
Some of the plot threads that don’t seem to go anywhere are not just dead ends or an attempt to hammer in the thematic points. Issues that go apparently unaddressed become more important in the second and third installments.
Once again, I’d comment on the translation but having no experience with the original I don’t really have anything of value to say there.
At this point, it’s practically a must-read for fans of “adult” mystery novels. Those who read primarily cozy mysteries will probably be turned off by the extreme content. It’s a good recommendation for fans of the darker “literary” fiction as well. While I haven’t read Gone girl (and honestly have no desire to), I do recommend it to fans of Gone girl looking for recommendations, with great success.*
*Many of the patrons I encountered who read Gone girl absolutely hated it. Depending on their reasoning (some felt like it was enforcing misogynistic stereotypes about women, others felt like the content was “disgusting”) I may or may not recommend it to them.
For those who found the content of either too extreme for their tastes, I generally recommend based on their other tastes – I recommend Miranda James to fans of themed cozy mysteries (especially cat mysteries) or Simenon to those who like their romans policier to be more traditional.
So some cross-recommendations
Gun machine / Warren Ellis
Seeking whom he may devour / Fred Vargas [originally:L’homme à l’envers] – to be honest, I didn’t like this book. Also, I have only read it in French so can’t comment on the quality of the English translation.
White butterfly / Walter Mosley
For those wanting something less intense
Murder past due / Miranda James – [mandatory “ethics” disclosure for GG-ers: I have sent this author an e-mail more than once, and we participate in some of the same professional mailing lists]
Maigret and the man on the boulevard / Georges Simenon [originally: Maigret et l’homme du banc] – Once again, I’ve only read this in the original French.