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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo., 24 Oct. 2009
This review is from: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Book 1) (Paperback)
Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has met with such phenomenal success that it's almost impossible to avoid them. The three titles - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest seem to be omnipresent, with heads tucked into them everywhere I go. Larsson, a Swedish journalist, died shortly after he handed in the manuscripts for his three thrillers in 2004, so the heartless cynic might suspect an element of posthumous hype. I remember disappointedly discarding John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces halfway through, and wondering whether some of the eulogies piled on it were related to the author's suicide eleven years before publication and his mother's subsequent desperate attempts to find a publisher. But the praise seems well earned in Larsson's case - he's produced commercially accessible but well-written and informed thrillers which, unlike Dan Brown, will appeal to the more discerning reader as well as purveyors of pappy beach reads.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a convoluted thriller set in Sweden. The atypical heroine is a dysfunctional, wary female computer hacker called Lisbeth Salander. Skinny as a bedraggled cat, surly, pierced and tattooed, she looks more of a delinquent teenager than the whizz-kid she is. She freelances for a security company and specialises in carrying out detailed private investigations on individuals. Conventional laws are there to be flouted as far as Salander goes, but she does have a strong moral code in other ways, refusing to tolerate violence against women. Salander becomes involved when a journalist called Mikael Blomkvist is asked to investigate a disappearance of a young woman that occurred thirty six years previously. Those under investigation are the members of a venerable and powerful business family, the Vangers .

The novel involves a large cast of characters and much intrigue. This is a very twenty first century thriller with sophisticated technology as well as the traditional stalwarts such as murderous megalomaniacs, scheming relatives and corrupt financiers. Salander is undoubtedly the star. Silent, fiercely intelligent, private, possibly abused in the past, made poignant by family tragedy, yet far too ferocious to be pitied, she is a very modern day heroine. So adept is she at knocking back threats that at times the story has a feminist cartoonish fantasy feel about it: it's easy to imagine a gamine actress kickboxing her way through the action scenes, and a Hollywood adaptation can't be far off.

The translation from Swedish is occasionally stilted- 'And because the conversation had so much an echo of a schoolboy tone' (rather than 'such an'); 'But even as alcoholics are drawn to the state liquor store' (rather than 'just as'); 'Blomkvist regretted his decision before even he left for home' (rather than 'even before'); 'Harriet's disappearance was the reason why gradually I withdrew' (rather than 'I gradually'). But despite the sometimes stiff feel, the storyline hooks the reader in. The prose is simple and utalitarian, employed only to tell the story - this is not literary fiction in any way, so if you're after sumptuous or poetic language, look elsewhere. But it's always intelligent, and the reader is never taken for a fool: although there are implausibilities, they're not impossibilities, as in so many other thrillers.

My least favourite parts were the very few sections in which Larsson lectured the reader, such as the lengthy explanation of legal competence: 'Since 1989, the term 'legally incompetent' is no longer applied to adults. There are two levels of social welfare protection - trusteeship and guardianship....'

As soon as Larsson started teaching, in his own voice, rather than telling the story through his characters, I felt hectored. Maybe these parts would have been changed had Larsson not died; altered so that the information was provided by a character rather than the preachy voice of the author, though having characters provide complex explanations is also problematic.

Nevertheless, I was still riveted. The characters are credible and one gets the sense that they have pasts, which is so often not the case in action stories with their two-dimensional heros and villains. The characters here are fallible, with faults as well as hopes, desires and dreams. Salander is an enigma, but that makes the reader more likely to revisit her in the second of the trilogy. The writing is unflashy but consistently solid, and Larsson has dotted every i and crossed every t as far as his plot is concerned: many thrillers have storylines so thin they feel like mohair stretched over bones of glaring incredulity. This is a racy, exciting page-turner; undemanding intellectually but quality stuff despite its accessibility. I'll be back for more.
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