No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 09, 2010

2010/73: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- Stieg Larsson

"Which is worse -- the fact that [he] raped her out in the cabin, or that you're going to do it in print? You have a fine dilemma. Maybe the ethics committee of the Journalists Association can give you some guidance." (p. 461)

An ageing Swedish industrialist engages a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, to investigate the 1966 disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. He'd also like to know which of his relatives has been trying to drive him mad these last forty years by sending him birthday reminders of Harriet. In exchange, he promises information that will redeem Blomqvist, who was jailed for libel after an exposé that proved to be a set-up.

In the process of investigating Harriet's disappearance, Blomqvist (who is apparently irresistable to women) encounters various family members, uncovers evidence of a series of violent crimes, and meets Lisbeth Salander, a young female security specialist with a murky past, 'a rather trying attitude' and a photographic memory.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tremendously evocative of Sweden. (Or so it seems to me: but I've never visited the country.) There's a marvellous sense of place, lakeside cabins and desolate flatlands: but Larsson pulls no punches about the dark underside of society, endemic misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Nazism. Each section of the novel is preceded by a statistic relating to sexual crime: "92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police" (p. 399).

Lisbeth Salander is one of these women, though she has no trust in the system -- which has failed her comprehensively, from the unexplored 'All the Evil' in her childhood to the fact she's still classified as 'legally incompetent' -- and resorts to an alternative solution. Salander is the reason I was so engaged with this novel: she's a fascinating character, neither sentimental nor self-pitying. She is competent, and she may be the character who displays most integrity: she does not compromise.

Read for book club: I've actually owned a copy for some time ... and have now acquired the other two in the trilogy. (£7 for both at Sainsburys).

When we discussed this at book club someone raised the point that it wasn't an especially novel crime novel, in terms of the crime: but I don't read a lot of contemporary crime/thrillers, so the crime element worked for me. Yes, the violence in the novel is unpleasant, distressing: but it's not sensationalised, and Larsson doesn't focus on suffering.

I did work out what happened to Harriet, and the identity of the primary criminal: but that wasn't because the plot is simplistic, it's because the novel does present all the necessary evidence for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. There are quite a few red herrings and a couple of useful coincidences to keep things uncertain.

The translation seems good to me, though some of the dialogue is slightly clunky: there are also points where the difference between Swedish and English terminology ("In English they call it 'new evidence', which has a very different sound from the Swedish 'new proof material'" (p.268)) are highlighted. I like this evidence of the translator's presence.

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