Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson was a magazine editor who died suddenly after delivering the manuscripts of three novels to his Swedish publisher. Intrigued as I might be about the suspicious circumstances, it didn’t help me to get through the book.

It was the film trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that pinged my antennae: just a cloud of ink spreading in water, like a lacy veil, and a young woman’s face, but any mention of dragons and I’m all ears.


Ah, that must have been why I picked it up in the local Red Cross shop. Why didn’t I read it before? I was soon reminded.

‘How-to-write’ guides advise readers to analyse books they admire. I find the ones I don’t like are a more useful challenge. Some of the choices in my crime reading group are so hard to get into they drive me to scribbling names and events on post-it notes.

’The plaudits that take up two pages arouse suspicion, for a start, although I’m sure the opposite is intended.

‘A rip-roaring serial-killer adventure’ (John Williams, The Mail on Sunday)

‘A striking novel, full of passion, an evocative sense of place and subtle incites into venal, corrupt minds.’ (Peter Guttridge, Observer)

‘What a cracking novel!’ …Brilliantly written and totally gripping’. (Minette Walters)

So why do I find it hard to get as far as Chapter 4?

It’s got two other ingredients that put me off straight away – apart from the eulogies, that is. First there’s a family tree that takes up a whole page, and then dates at the head of each chapter, partly in Roman numerals!

I’ve no objection to a Scandinavian setting – I’ve liked Sweden the three times I’ve been there, I enjoy the Wallander series on TV (albeit the ones with subtitles and no Kenneth Branagh) and I quite enjoyed the Swedish thriller we read in the crime reading group, although his name was unpronounceable.

So what’s wrong with this one? It starts innocuously enough. No Val McDermid-style riveter, but I’ll give it a go, even though there's a prologue, a third stumbling block. An old man receives a pressed flower on his birthday. Nothing so strange, except he’s been getting them annually for 42 years and he has no idea who sends them. Even his friend the police chief can’t crack the mystery. Annoying, but not enough to cause too much fretting, one would have thought.

Chapter one introduces a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, found guilty of libelling Wennerstrom, a businessman. There’s a flashback to a chance meeting with a pal who has told him that Wennerstrom is some kind of financial shyster. This has got to be the most boring conversion in any book, ever. It’s pure journalese. I get bogged down with acronyms which seem to be company names as in A.I.A. project or some who’s the C.E.O. of A.B.B.

These people are all quite well-heeled and live in a kind of Jeffrey Archer world with a Swedish twist – boats and waterside cabins feature.

Chapter two switches to another character, just as boring as the others, apart from his name: Dragan Armansky. A promising name but he’s not only C.E. O. but C.O.O (aargh) of a security firm. I’m really hammering the post-its by now. But here comes the real off-putter, the eponymous heroine.

Armansky’s part-time assistant, Lisbeth Salander, is ‘pale, anorexic’, ‘with slender bones that made her look girlish and fines-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four but she sometimes looked fourteen.’, and ‘Her extreme slenderness would have made a career in modelling impossible’ I‘d have thought she was just the ticket.

She reminds him of Pippi Longstocking, (a nine-years-old Swedish children’s book heroine), although her clothes are different from Pippi’s short skirt and thigh-length stripy socks:

‘Sometimes she wore black lipstick, and in spite of the tattoos and the pierced nose and eyebrows she was …well…attractive.

In case we haven’t got the message, Armansky tells us she reminds him of his daughter. Some editing would ease the queasiness, but you can see why it made a film.

There's a brief and unlikely love tryst in Chapter three. Blomkvist's mistress is a married woman with a tolerant husband.It’s page 82, the end of Chapter four before we get to the start. Blomkvist is asked by Henrik Vangler, head of a business empire, to find out why his granddaughter was murdered. He’s the same old man who was receiving the flowers in the prologue and whose family tree is on the first page.

For readers who can overlook the slick, cliché-ridden journalistic writing,
care about male characters who are ideal candidates for a Swedish version of BBC Radio 4 and don’t feel offended by a size zero bolshie heroine who only has a job because her boss is a paedo, this is an ideal read.

For me, if there’s a connection with dragons, I’m only going to find out from the film.

Website with details of Swedish crime novels:

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