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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

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Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Novel
Written: (2005) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 463 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - US
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - UK
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Canada
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - India
Hommes qui n'aimaient pas les femmes - France
Verblendung - Deutschland
Uomini che odiano le donne - Italia
Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres - España
  • Swedish title: Män som hatar kvinnor
  • Translated by Reg Keeland
  • Volume 1 in the Millennium-trilogy
  • Män som hatar kvinnor was made into a film in 2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was re-made into a film in 2011, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgård

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit too righteous, but enjoyable enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 17/3/2008 Jeff Glorfeld
The Independent . 11/1/2008 Barry Forshaw
Independent on Sunday . 24/2/2008 Jonathan Gibbs
The NY Observer . 3/10/2008 Will Heinrich
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2011 Tim Parks
The NY Sun . 22/9/2008 Martha Mercer
The NY Times . 30/9/2008 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. C+ 14/9/2008 Alex Berenson
The Observer . 6/1/2008 Peter Guttridge
The Spectator . 20/2/2008 Andrew Taylor
Sunday Times A- 20/1/2008 Joan Smith
Sydney Morning Herald A 22/2/2008 Robert Dessaix
The Telegraph . 17/1/2008 Roger Perkins
The Telegraph . 8/3/2008 Jake Kerridge
The Times . 18/1/2008 Marcel Berlins
TLS . 28/3/2008 Ruth Morse
The Washington Post A 22/9/2008 Patrick Anderson

  Review Consensus:

  Some rough edges, but generally very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The first-time author's excitement at his creation is palpable, strangely, in the book's sometimes amateurish construction. There are frequent long digressions in this big book (more than 500 pages) in which he laboriously fills in back-story details. (...) To his credit, though, he always regains control and restores momentum. (...) There is, however, a disturbing transition as deep into the book this classic mystery about a young girl's disappearance takes an extreme turn and becomes a hunt for a serial killer who makes Hannibal Lecter look as threatening as SpongeBob SquarePants' pal Patrick." - Jeff Glorfeld, The Age

  • "Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in Reg Keeland's elegant translation, is a bittersweet experience. We are constantly reminded that an accomplished literary voice has been stilled." - Barry Forshaw, The Independent

  • "The book feels closer to Agatha Christie than Henning Mankell, more concerned with the idea of detection as an intellectual exercise, like a crossword puzzle of human emotions, than a murky procedure compromised by the buffets and trials of real life. Nor is it a breakneck page-turner. (...) If Larsson's book feels just a little amateurish, then perhaps that works to its advantage. This never feels like a by-the-numbers thriller. The twists and revelations work all the better for being worked for, rather than flung at the reader, two to a page." - Jonathan Gibbs, Independent on Sunday

  • "The book is terrible, but thereís certainly something to it. (...) Maybe the story possesses an organic coherence, so that it doesnít matter if the incidents are absurd; or maybe the very fantastical nature of those absurdities creates a mesmerizing dreaminess. Maybe it doesnít matter if the dialogue is wooden, so long as each wooden remark points inexorably to the next; or maybe reading about fully realized human characters takes too much energy, and Larssonís sketchy figures get the job done just as well. Maybe the quality of a story matters less than the tellerís conviction; or maybe this book appealed to a part of me, but just not a part I like." - Will Heinrich, The New York Observer

  • "Loose ends and incongruities abound, lending the trilogy an endearingly amateurish feel, emphasized by a translation from the Swedish that, though for the most part fluent, occasionally treats us to decidedly muddled idioms" - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Your correspondent, at this point, must confess to being an inveterate, even rapacious, reader of mysteries. So the first 60 pages of Larsson's book were slightly vexing: Where was the body ? But the book picks up speed quite nicely after the Vanger plot line is introduced, and in the end the financial crime aspect is a valuable, if not completely seamless, addition. The book, with its journalistic tone and twin plot threads, is intriguing enough that it will leave some readers wanting more, and they will get it: Two other Larsson novels are forthcoming in what's now known as the Millennium Trilogy, and a Swedish movie adaptation is in the works as well." - Martha Mercer, The New York Sun

  • "Itís Mr. Larssonís two protagonists -- Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo -- who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: theyíre both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "But if the middle section of Girl is a treat, the rest of the novel doesn't quite measure up. The book's original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, a label that just about captures the subtlety of the novel's sexual politics. (...) But the real disappointment in Girl comes in its final section, after the mystery of Harriet's disappearance has been solved. Without any warning, Girl metamorphoses into a boring account of Blomkvist's effort to take down the executive who originally won the libel lawsuit mentioned at the start of the novel. The story of his revenge is boring and implausible, relying heavily on lazy e-mail exchanges between characters." - Alex Berenson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The journalist and the hacker are ingenious, believable creations, in conflict with themselves and each other. They form an incongruous but credible bond as everyone they meet is against them. In the end, the novel becomes, among many other things, something of a tender love story. (...) This is a striking novel, full of passion, an evocative sense of place and subtle insights into venal, corrupt minds." - Peter Guttridge, The Observer

  • "This is a long thriller but it sustains the readerís interest, partly because itís well-plotted but more, perhaps, because of the anger Larsson directs at his targets. Misogyny, financial corruption, murder, fascism all have a contribution to make, and Larsson implies that ultimately they spring from the same source. The book may not be particularly subtle but itís highly effective and a very good read" - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

  • "(I)f Blomkvist is his fictional alter ego, Salander is confirmation of his belief in a womanís capacity to survive the most dreadful abuse. She isnít so much a character as a revenge fantasy come to life, powering her way through the novel like the heroine of a computer game and undermining its gritty realism. That said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a memorable debut and deserves most of the hype with which it is being published in this country. Crime fiction has seldom needed to salute and mourn such a stellar talent as Larssonís in the same breath." - Joan Smith, Sunday Times

  • "What he has come up with is the total detective novel. (...) Larsson's prose is bright and functional, like Sweden, with barely a hint of poetry and, while not all the characters are exactly multifaceted, the plotting and pacing are masterful. (...) Less horrifyingly violent than the Bible, with a simpler plot line, Larsson's tale is much more believable and vastly more fun." - Robert Dessaix, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Larsson does an impressive job in keeping the plot moving; first steps into the mystery canon and, indeed, the first parts of trilogies can get bogged down in backstory. Also, the tale survives a name change from the original (Men Who Hated Women -- much more to the point) and what feels like a workmanlike rather than inspired translation. A lack of twists and turns is compensated for by entertaining contemplation of how Blomqvist the unfeasible sex machine manages to solve crimes with his trousers round his ankles most of the time." - Roger Perkins, The Telegraph

  • "This first volume reads like a solemn version of Jonathan Coe's comic shocker What a Carve-up !, with a Lefty writer investigating a decades-old mystery involving a large family of rich industrialists, the plot being the vehicle for the author's condemnation of corruption. (...) I can tell it is a book motivated by righteous anger, but it does not make me feel or share that anger." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

  • "I usually resist long crime novels, but at over 500 pages, this hardly sagged. (...) The novel scores on every front -- characters, story, atmosphere and the translation, by Steven T. Murray." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Part thriller, part crime novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo requires the reader to take time over its introductions of characters and situations. Larsson exploits the stereotypes of genre fiction, and offers their pleasures: the hero irresistible to women; heroines with a number of gifts; wicked doctors; family scandal; hackers; a complex plot; and incredible events which we accept as credible for the sake of the fiction." - Ruth Morse, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been a huge bestseller in Europe and will be one here if readers are looking for an intelligent, ingeniously plotted, utterly engrossing thriller that is variously a serial-killer saga, a search for a missing person and an informed glimpse into the worlds of journalism and business. (...) It's hard to find fault with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. One must struggle with bewildering Swedish names, but that's a small price to pay. The story starts off at a leisurely pace, but the reader soon surrenders to Larsson's skillful narrative. We care about his characters because we come to know them so well. The central question -- what happened to Harriet ? -- is answered in due course, and other matters involving romance and revenge are wrapped up as well. It's a book that lingers in the mind." - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the much more blunt Män som hatar kvinnor -- 'Men who hated women' -- and while not quite as catchy or appealing that is much closer to the mark. Not only because there are some men who really, really hate women in this book, but because so much of the book is steeped in hatred, and because Larsson is no master of subtlety. What makes it bearable -- indeed, quite enjoyable -- is a contrasting decency throughout, too, a number of characters who are decent -- with Larsson (just) managing to avoid making things solely black and white with his very damaged heroine, that girl with the tattoos.
       The central figure of the novel is Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist who is a partner in a small magazine, Millennium. Blomkvist is divorced and a pretty sorry excuse for a father to his teenage daughter, and isn't too particular about whom he hops into bed with, but otherwise he is one of the very decent characters. He's just suffered a major setback, however, sued for aggravated libel for an article he wrote about mega-industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström; the judgement against him will just about wipe out his savings, and he's also looking at a couple of months in jail. But he's resigned himself to it; indeed, he barely defended himself at the trial, though, of course, he's not quite as guilty as the judgement suggests.
       Blomkvist gets an interesting offer during these hard times: the patriarch of another Swedish family with immense business holdings, Henrik Vanger, has a proposition for him. Henrik wants Blomkvist to write a history of the family -- but that's only a cover story for what he really wants Blomkvist to do: investigate the disappearance of one of their own, decades earlier: teenage Harriet. On a day when the island where the family live and were largely assembled an accident cut them off from the mainland; during that time Harriet went missing, and no one has been able to find a trace of her since. As Blomkvist sums up:

     "It's actually a fascinating case. What I believe is known in the trade as a locked-room mystery, on an island. And nothing in the investigation seems to follow the normal logic. Every question remains unanswered, every clue leads to a dead end."
       The Vanger empire is also starting to fray at the edges, and the future does not look bright for the company. Blomkvist also quickly discovers that there are a lot of unpleasant family members, including some virulent anti-Semites, and his snooping is largely unwelcome. But at least they do have some family values: no one ever seems to get divorced .....
       The trail leads Blomkvist to a serial killer, who is about as depraved as it gets (and does not like women); like far too many thriller-writers Larsson isn't satisfied with your garden-variety murderer, but rather has to invent one of such insane evil that it ultimately comes off as silly, not terrifying. It also doesn't seem particularly plausible, but because it's not the sole focus of the novel the harm is limited.
       Blomkvist solves the mystery of Harriet's fate well before the end of the book, as Larsson continues things with him getting an opportunity to take down the corrupt Wennerström as well, an enjoyable little side-story. Unfortunately, Larsson tends to focus on the big message, and on teaching lessons: the point of the whole Wennerström-angle is to complain how soft financial journalists are, and how little proper investigating they do in their field, content to believe what the businessmen and financiers tell them, rather than looking at the facts. The Wennerström-conglomerate turns out, of course, to have been just a house of cards built on criminal corruption and deceit.
       Similarly, much of the rest of the book is a diatribe against violence against women -- laudable enough in purpose, but Larsson's rabid attack and especially his use of cartoon-figure villains undermines his arguments. He presents statistics to suggest his points at the beginning of the different sections of the book -- not always to best effect, as when he begins:
18 percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man
       And then follows it a hundred pages later:
46 percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man
       More than twice as many have been subjected to violence than threatened ? That sounds ... confusing, at the very least.
       Worse, of course, is that his women-hating abusers are so over the top that they belong in the realm of the pathological -- while the problem of violence against women is, in fact, a much more mundane one, committed for the most part by very average husbands, boyfriends, and strangers: everyday folk.
       But Larsson is big on playing it to the hilt: Wennerström, too, can't just be a regular industrialist, but has to be one of the biggest in Sweden, etc. etc.
       Still, one has to hand it to him: one of the most exaggerated characters is also the most compelling, the girl who becomes Blomkvist's sidekick and lover, a super-hacker (one of the best in Sweden, of course) in her mid-twenties, with a photographic memory, Lisbeth Salander. With a mother suffering from dementia and long a problem-child (and definitely socially beyond incompetent), she is still officially under state guardianship -- giving Larsson yet another thing to rail against. Her new guardian is also a -- guess what ? -- woman-hating and abusing piece of work who takes advantage of his position. But Salander can take care of herself. Well, for the most part: she does suffer some -- and she apparently suffered a lot, sometime in her youth. She has tremendous trust-issues (i.e. she doesn't trust anyone), and is almost incapable of forming any sort of relationship. In Blomkvist she finds the rare soul (in Larsson's version of Sweden) who may be up to handling her -- though, since this is just the first book in a trilogy, don't expect any quick resolutions.
       Salander is a cartoonish super-hero, and if something bad happens to her -- she is sexually violated -- she more than gets back at the perpetrator. Her complete distrust of the authorities is also an interesting character-trait: this is a book where the police are largely kept out of it, even at points where they should obviously be called in. But Larsson does not seem to have much patience for bureaucratic approaches to law and order (or almost anything to do with government).
       Rather too much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really astonishingly silly, and for the most part Larsson is, at best, a workmanlike writer -- the kind of thriller-writer who is so insecure that he still resorts to scenes such as:
     When Salander said goodbye, her mother did not want to let go of her hand. Salander promised to visit her again soon, but her mother gazed after her sadly and anxiously.
     It was as if she had a premonition of some approaching disaster.
       Still, the pace is pretty good, the mystery a bit tortured but still enjoyable enough in how it is unraveled, and there's enough going on beyond the central case Blomkvist is investigating, from the various relationships to the goings-on at the Millennium offices to Salander's private life, to make for a very readable thriller.
       The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mostly pedestrian and formulaic, but Larsson pours enough on to make it more compelling than most such thrillers. A very good second-rate novel.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Reviews: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - the films: Stieg Larsson: Other books by Stieg Larsson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Stieg Larsson lived 1954 to 2004.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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