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12th January
2010
written by Steph
If it's an international best-seller it's gotta be good, right?

If it's an international best-seller it's gotta be good, right?

When it comes to following up a Jane Austen novel, clearly the perfect choice is a gory crime novel, right?  Ok, maybe not most people’s choice, but I finished Northanger Abbey on our flight from Toronto to Chicago and clearly couldn’t stand an hour-long flight without some alternate reading material.  I figure that so long as there are airports, the publishing industry doesn’t really have anything to worry about because people read A LOT when flying… including myself!  So I snagged myself a copy of Stieg Larsson’s debut novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, because for better or for worse this thing has been hyped to high heaven the world over and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. There are several storylines running throughout this novel, but I suppose a boiled down synopsis would go something like this: When journalist Mikael Blomkvist is convicted of libel for printing an unfounded article about one of Sweden’s financial bigwigs, he thinks life as he knows it is at an end.  There goes his reputation, his career, and maybe his magazine in one fell swoop.  But then Mikael is approached by Henrik Vanger, ex-head of the Vanger corporation, and offered a job in which he’ll spend a year investigating the disappearance of Vanger’s niece, Harriet.  The twist?  Harriet went missing 40 years ago… and most of the Vanger family is a suspect.  In return, Vanger will pay Mikael a handsome salary and at the end of the year, will give him some information that will let him exact his revenge on Wennerstrom.  No one really expects Mikael to make any headway in a case that has stumped the authorities for 4 decades, but when he makes some unexpected discoveries, it’s time to call in hacker extraordinaire, Lisbeth Salander, to do some exceptional and unconventional digging.  Will they figure out what happened to Harriet?  If not, will Mikael be able to bring Wennerstrom down? So, there is an incredibly rudimentary idea of what you’re in for with this book… only not, because that synopsis failed to mentioned a few things: 1) this book is REALLY long and so much of what I have revealed to you will take something like 300 pages to happen; 2) there is a LOT of talk of financial dealings and other things that perhaps would not cause you to immediately use some variant on the term “thriller” to describe them; 3) there are extremely graphic descriptions of horrifically violent acts, and yes, I realize this novel is termed a thriller, but still… it felt very extreme; 4) did I mention this book is very lengthy and the pace as glacial as the frozen Swedish tundra Larsson is enamored with describing? Look, this book is crazy hot right now so chances are you have already read it OR that you are going to.  Personally, I don’t get what the big deal is with it.  I won’t say I strongly disliked the book – I did read the whole 600 pages after all – nor would I say it was a bad book provided its sole purpose was to entertain, but I would say it is squarely and irrevocably mediocre, and this extends from the writing (and I have read some reviews/comments where people have said they thought the writing was great and all I can say is… I really think it was bland and not great… no finesse) to the pacing (see above paragraph) to the characters (caricatures might be a better word, really) to the actual plot.  This is a book in which a lot of stuff happens (though much of it is often boring, and much of it also happens at such a slow pace it feels like nothing is happening), but somehow I kept feeling like Larsson had bit off more than he could chew.  With so many storylines going on, inevitably some of them are going to get dropped in order to focus on other ones, and I think one of the problems is that Larsson was so close to his own material that he couldn’t see that “financial scandal” is perhaps not as interesting as “lost/possibly murdered girl”.  It seems obvious to us perhaps, but apparently not so much to Larsson.  I would also argue that maybe he didn’t realize that Mikael Blomkvist was not all that interesting and the only character his readers will care about is Lisbeth Salander, but then again he did ostensibly name the book after her and it sounds like she takes an increased role in later books… so that leads me to conclude that he knew she was interesting to readers but limited her parts in the early portions of the book, like a carrot in front of a horse, in order to keep us reading.  I think I summed this all up best when I said that although a blurb on the front cover proclaims this book to be “wildly suspenseful” clearly that was a typo, as this book is merely “mildly suspenseful”. I think one of the reasons I didn’t dig this book that much is because for me the characters were poorly developed/conceived and there wasn’t much internal life going on there.  When I thought about why it was I liked Tana French’s thrillers so much last year, I realized it’s because her novels are far more richly psychological.  French has taken the time to develop well-rounded, intricate, complicated characters who readers will relate to, whose heads we will spend a lot of time inside, trying to figure them out.  I thought the characters were quite poorly drawn in TGWTDT, and they felt very superficial, even Salander to some extent, even though she clearly does undergo the most changes throughout the book (but as I said, she is perhaps the only worthwhile character in the book).  This extended to their actions and motivations – certain elements of the murder mystery I guessed, though I admit I didn’t crack it in its entirety… but when it was revealed, I have to say I can’t see how a reader wouldn’t feel disappointed.  The motivation for the atrocities is so awfully lame and unsatisfying and quite honestly dumb, it made me feel like I had wasted a lot of my time for something so poorly conceived.  In a way, it made the violence I had read even more offensive, because I felt like maybe Larsson should have spent more time thinking up an interesting/clever motivation for the crimes rather than exerting all his creative efforts on writing things that were as gross as possible.  I just felt like the more I read the more the potential of the novel fell away, bungled in Larsson’s hands, as potentially interesting twists slipped through his fingers, only to become banal and pointless pieces of trivia. Ultimately, I found TGWTDT to be a fairly uninspired and insipid novel.  I have read good crime fiction (go read any of my reviews of Tana French’s stuff, please!), and I don’t think this is it.  I think Larsson substitutes gratuitous gore and other issues that are sure to make readers uncomfortable in lieu of actually crafting a thoughtful work that could evoke similar emotions through its own power.  By relying on rape, torture, mutilation and the like… well, of course people will feel uneasy, because those are unpleasant topics.  But Larsson brings nothing more to the table other than the fact that most people will be horrified by a character being raped and so we will therefore care about said character or feel outraged on his/her behalf… I’m sorry, but I require more than that as a reader. I really dislike when authors essentially exploit hot-button issues (like religion, or the Holocaust… which Larsson does) rather than explore said issues in a thoughtful manner; to me it’s extremely lazy and unskilled writing. So, clearly I don’t get the hype regarding this novel.  Ok, not entirely true, I do get why the book is popular – because it’s easy to read and doesn’t demand much of its readers (other than a strong stomach) and is not very smart.  In essence it’s one of those “lowest common denominator” novels, much like The Da Vinci Code was, that does everything in its power to appeal to as many people as possible (perhaps explaining the hodge podge of plots and topics covered).  I guess the thing is, if someone enjoys this book, more power to them.  But for people to say that this elevates the crime thriller to a new level, or that this is a literary novel, or a novel that is thoughtful in any way?  No, no, and no.  It’s pulp, it’s an extreme form of entertainment (because I feel weird claiming a book that involves as much dismemberment as this one does is “entertaining), but great fiction it ain’t.  Maybe the majority of crime fiction is really bad and this is better than that, but I know from personal experience that there are some books out there that are definitely a cut above this.  Ultimately, it was lazy, weakly plotted, poorly characterized, and the writing was serviceable but by no means excellent.  It goes for the cheap thrills rather than substance, and again, I want to say that I know people have read this and enjoyed it and that's great for them!  Really, it is!  I read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code back in the day, so I know from pulp novels and I know they serve a purpose, and I'm fine with saying that it was a fun book that kept me interested for a few hours, tearing through the pages. If this book did that for you, that's fantastic, but please don't tell me I should think it's an amazing piece of literature, because: no. My opinion is unlikely to change the consensus regarding this book.  There may be some of you out there who were like me, on the fence about this one, but who’d like to see for yourself what it’s all about.  There’s no harm in doing so, but ultimately, I’d say you’re wasting your time… that said, I’m not upset with myself for reading it, because now I can have an informed opinion about this series (or at least part of it). Also, I get to check Sweden off on the map of literary jetsetting in 2010.  I did think that Salander was an interesting character and I wouldn’t be dead set about seeing what she gets into in the next book (which is supposedly better), but I won’t be rushing out any time soon to pick up a copy of The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Maybe if I’m looking for a moderately paced action thriller where I can turn my brain off we’ll meet again, but for now I think I can confidently part ways with Stieg Larsson. Rating: 3 out of 5

25 Comments

  1. 01/12/2010

    Prior to this review I had only heard positive, rave reviews of this novel and I felt like the only person on the planet that hadn’t read it. Now I feel like I can wait a little longer. You build a strong case for me not putting this at the top of my pile. I’ve avoided DaVinci Code all these years and I am still alive to talk about it so I suppose I can live without this one for awhile longer too!

  2. 01/12/2010

    I tried to listen to the audio version of this one, but did not care for the reader, and I never tried the print version as a result –maybe sometime, but there are just too many other books I’d like to read. Thanks for the honest review.

  3. 01/12/2010

    I may have some long bus trips coming up, and I think I’ll save reading this book for one of those delightful experiences.

  4. 01/12/2010

    It’s interesting that you would characterize this as pulp; I can see where you’re coming from, but I would counter that you must not have read much of the (plethora of) pulp out there these days, or you might feel that, whatever its shortcomings, it rises above the other airport selections! :–)

  5. 01/12/2010

    The violence in this makes this book an absolutely no way book for me. But I don’t really like thrillers anyway, so I’m okay with that.

  6. 01/12/2010

    @ Kathleen: I had mostly heard only good things about this book for the longest while, but more recently I’ve read a few negative/less enthusiastic reviews. Most people do seem to love it, that’s for sure, but I just was underwhelmed.
     
    @ diane: For me there were so many characters to keep track of, I can’t imagine listening to this book – I think I would have gotten lost. The version I read had a family tree for the Vangers, but I admit, even still I was confused a good deal of the time!
     
    @ charley: Despite it’s slow pace, it’s probably well suited to a trip where you can read for long periods of time. I confess, I didn’t feel like I couldn’t put it down, but I wasn’t exactly bored either.
     
    @ rhapsody: You’re right that I haven’t read much of the MMP crime thriller genre, BUT I have read Tana French’s books which I think would also qualify as crime/mystery thrillers and I thought they were a thousand times better than this. I guess this may have been better than the rest of the genre – I haven’t read enough of the genre to say for sure – but I still didn’t think it was exceptional writing or plotting in either case. I mean is saying, “this genre is generally filled with crappy writing and this was better than that” really amazing praise? I tend to think not. I think something can be less crappy than its peers but still be crappy! This isn’t the pulpiest of all the pulp out there, but I can’t say this is pulp-free.
     
    @ Amanda: I have no problem with thrillers, I just want them to thrill me! This generally did not. I don’t necessarily have anything against violence in books, but in this case I did feel as though the author was purposefully being gratuitous (and the motivation for the disgusting acts described was so feeble, it bothered me even more).

  7. 01/12/2010

    Bravo! I think I disliked this book just as much as you did, but you expressed it with much more panache than I ever could have! I don’t get why this book, or this series is so popular. It wasn’t great writing, the plot was a snoozefest, and the endless, mind numbing descriptions of all the technical gadgetry really annoyed the heck out of me. I must admit that thrillers are not my genre of choice, but I think if I were to read a good one, I would recognize it. This was not it. Excellent review, Steph! I am also not going to be going any further with Larsson, no matter what I hear.

  8. 01/12/2010

    Jenny’s review a while back, and my general allergy to wildly popular books, had already put me off reading this. You’ve confirmed my instincts.

    I don’t mind reading an unsophisticated or even pulpy book now and then, but one-dimensional characterization and exploitativeness as a substitute for thoughtful plotting really put me off.

  9. 01/12/2010

    When I read the first one it had been ages since I read a thriller-type book, so I found it entertaining (although, yes, a bit extreme in the gore department). The second one started to bore me (there were PAGES devoted to Salander shopping for furniture at IKEA), although it picked up in the end. The third one? I set it down after a few chapters because the descriptions of the characters were awful…and awfully boring. It remains to be seen if I’ll finish it.

  10. “it is squarely and irrevocably mediocre”

    I agree with you. I struggle to grasp why so many people rave about this book. It seems there are just a few of us that haven’t fallen in love with this book, but it is good to know that our book taste is matching again!

  11. 01/13/2010

    I got this book for Christmas and was debating reading it. I read one review of it which was negative and now I’ve read your honest review of it and I am a bit on the fence about this book. I’m not sure if I’ll just wait to read it or if I will just get rid of the book altogether. I initially wanted the book because everyone was raving about it and it sounded like such a fun, fluff read, but now, I’m not so sure anymore. Oh well. Either way, I enjoyed your review, because it was informative and honest. Thanks! By the by, don’t you hate it when people are expounding on how brilliant the writing of a book is and then when you finally get to read it, you wonder what they frack they were talking about. For me that happened with Little Bee, I just did not get what all the hype was about with that book. Oh well. Different strokes, right?

  12. 01/13/2010

    @ zibilee: I went back and re-read your review of this book, and it looks like we had nearly identical reactions to it. I forgot to mention the excessive detail Larsson goes into when describing computers and the like but I totally found that jarring while I read and am glad you mentioned it! If you are interested in reading a good thriller, I will say once again that I think you should try Tana French’s books because they are well written and far more interesting!
     
    @ Teresa: I am with you – nothing wrong with reading solely for pleasure, and if a less literary novel achieves that then that’s fine… but I had many other problems with this book writing aside so that my pleasure was dramatically lessened.
     
    @ softdrink: Thanks for letting me know that you felt the series actually gets poorer with each book! That’s the first time I’ve heard that! As I said, I wouldn’t be completely adverse to reading the next one should it be easy (and free) to come by, but I won’t be rushing out for it. Too many other good books to read!
     
    @ Jackie: Yes, I remember reading your review a few weeks back, which I think was really helpful actually. Say four months ago, I hadn’t read a single less-than-glowing review of this book, but that has since changed, which helped me readjust my expectations. If I hadn’t read your review (and a few others) I likely would have been WAY more disappointed.
     
    @ Nadia: I think since you have the book, there’s no harm in you paging through it and seeing how you feel about it (though most acknowledge the first 50 pages (at least) are slow, regardless of how you ultimately feel about the book). I wouldn’t urge you to rush out and procure a copy, but you do already have it, so why not give it a look? That said, I wouldn’t prioritize it over anything else you’re actually anxious to read! 😉

  13. 01/13/2010

    You know, even though this has been one of the darlings of the literary world for awhile now, I have absolutely no interest in reading it. Good to know I’m not missing out on much.

  14. 01/13/2010

    Ha! That’s so funny because I *just* watched the trailer for the movie and I thought to myself, “Wow. I really need to read this book ASAP.” And, now I’ve come across your review which basically counsels, ‘If you haven’t read it yet, take your time.’ I think I’ll take your advice. I do still plan to read it, but I’ll go back to what I was doing in the first place. Planning to get to it whenever I got to it.

    Also, although I’ve read mostly good reviews about this book, I should say that the one bad review I read was by Christopher Hithchens in Vanity Fair. I don’t know how you feel about Hitchens, but he’s not *terrible* company to be in. Lol. Hope your next read goes better!

  15. 01/13/2010

    I keep going back and forth about whether or not I want to read this book. Every time I decide I don’t, a glowing review comes along to try to convince me. Then I decide I do and come across a disappointed one like yours. I’m a character-oriented reader and definitely need psychological complexity in my books, so I think the “no” camp has got me for good now. Plus I’m not a fan of explicit violence or gore, especially when it feels gratuitous.

  16. 01/13/2010

    Hmm…I guess that there are so many mediocre thrillers these days that anything a touch above makes me want more…I also was not too bothered about the violence/gore in the book, that is pretty much standard for most thrillers. Probably, I read too many of them 🙂

    I think what Larsson was trying to do, was put in his personal beliefs within his book. Before he wrote this book, he was a known and passionate anti-fascist/anti-nazist and that comes through in this novel. I guess I kinda liked it because of that.

    I also suppose that if he had lived longer, he might have edited the books a bit? For all these reasons, I gave him the benefit of the doubt 🙂

  17. 01/13/2010

    I actually quite liked this one – I’m not a big crime genre reader at all but I did find this book entertaining (if also disturbing with the amount of violence portrayed – especially against or towards women) and I thought the characters were quite well developed. I did think there were some overall writing/style issues but I wondered if this was due to the translation process??

  18. 01/13/2010

    @Lesley: I can see why the book has been so popular, but I’m a bit surprised that critics have loved the book so much. Ah well, at least I’m in the know now, which is something.
     
    @J.S.: I thought I had heard something about the movie version coming out – not sure if I’ll see it; I have little interest in seeing any of the violent scenes depicted on the big screen, but don’t think they can be removed.
    This is one of those books that no matter how mixed the reviews (or perhaps because of them!) I knew I was going to have to read so I could form my own opinion. For that reason alone I’m glad I read it, but I think you’re doing the right thing and waiting until you have a lull before you seek this one out. No need to prioritize it over other books.
     
    @Nymeth: Based on the books I’ve noted you enjoying, I would be really surprised if this book won you over. It doesn’t have the depth that most of the books you tend to appreciate do.
     
    @ Nish: Maybe if I read a lot of crime thrillers in general I would have better appreciated this one, but as it was, I was comparing it to rather good crime fiction, I suppose, and the rest of my reading selections, which tend to be more literary and less pulpy. I wasn’t bothered by the violence because I thought it was gross… more that I thought it was unnecessarily gory and gratuitous.
    And I’ve read a bit about the author now, so I know that he was espousing a lot of his beliefs through his fiction, and it’s not that they weren’t admirable, but I don’t know that they served his story well. Perhaps you’re right and if given the chance he would have edited them more rigorously, which I think would have benefited us all!
     
    @ Karen: I can understand people being intrigued by the character of Salander, but I really don’t think any of the other characters stood on their own two feet at all? They seemed so flat to me!
    As for the writing, I do think part of it could be chalked up to translation – certainly some things sounded a bit off – but I do think there were issues that went beyond that as well.

  19. Kay
    01/14/2010

    Although I think I enjoyed it slightly more than you did, I have to say that I agree with most of your review! I read the three books really fast (since all 3 have been out in French for a while) but I wasn’t impressed with the story or the writing either.

    For me, the next two books felt even more life pulp than this one. Yes, we do learn a lot more about who Lisbeth is and why, but there is so much action going on that it felt like reading an episode of 24. It was all Boom! and Twist! and OMG you’ll never guess what! Boom! Twist! Shock! Don’t get me wrong, I somewhat enjoy 24 for what it is (entertainment with very little logic :-P) but as you said, I wouldn’t consider these books as great literature.

    Reading your comparison go Trench’s novel makes me even more eager to read it!

  20. 01/15/2010

    @ Kay: I don’t think there’s anything wrong or bad with a book being mostly action – I think i was just expecting the books to be more thoughtful than they wound up being. I haven’t entirely ruled out reading the next two books, but as I said, I rarely feel the need to just read something so plot-based so they aren’t high priority. I haven’t really watched 24, but reading the book made me think of episodes of Alias which I did watch!

  21. I have had no inclination to read this at all and, between your and Jackie’s reviews, I feel confident in my gut instinct. Life is too short for popular but mediocre books!

  22. 01/15/2010

    @ Claire: If you aren’t the least bit curious about this one then I agree you’re right to steer clear of it. I’m glad I can have an opinion on this one now and I know I always would have wondered, so I’m glad I was able to read it and now be over it!

  23. Kay
    01/17/2010

    Steph : Oh, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with action either, but in the end I felt like it took over the story and the characters. Still, I wouldn’t discourage you of reading them; you might end up enjoying them more than the first one since you’ll know more of what’s waiting for you. Pulp or not, I really enjoyed reading them 🙂

  24. 01/18/2010

    @ Kay: You’re right that I might enjoy the sequels more now that I know what to expect… when I’m in the need of a plot-based thriller, I’m sure I’ll find myself reading Girl Who Played with Fire.

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