By Beth Terrell
Last month, our Sisters in Crime group had our book club discussion on Stieg Larsson's novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was an interesting discussion, and one of the topics touched on was why the novel was such a monumental success, considering all the rules the author breaks.
One commonly touted writing rule is "Never open with a prologue." Yet, it was generally agreed at our meeting that, in Larsson's case, the prologue was the most intriguing part of the book. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does a number of unorthodox things that, in another novel, might be considered the kiss of death. It has been suggested that the book's success can be chalked up to its setting in Sweden and to the fact that it (along with the other two in the series) were published posthumously. Larsson died of a massive heart attack shortly after submitting all three manuscripts. I don't agree. If you read the reviews on Amazon.com and on Larsson's website, there are obviously other factors at work. Still, the book has a number of weaknesses that bear mentioning.
First, there's a long (very long) subplot involving a libel trial involving the male protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist. General consensus was that this subplot was not very interesting, although it did serve the purpose of making Blomqvist vulnerable enough to accept the assignment that is ostensibly at the heart of the novel (investigating the disappearance and possible murder of his client's niece some forty years earlier). The libel subplot continues again--for more than 100 pages--after the "main" mystery is solved. It creates an odd anticlimax, especially since we never even meet the villain, a corrupt industrialist. Most of the Sisters agreed that this subplot could have--and should have--been dealt with much more quickly.
Second, the intriguing and poignant puzzle set up in the beginning turns out to have very little substance. Blomqvist solves it on the basis of information that could just have easily led him to the opposite conclusion. There's another, related, mystery that turns out to be a serial killer subplot (I don't think that's a spoiler). The killer is remarkably easy to figure out. In fairness to Blomqvist (and maybe Larsson), maybe my reasons for suspecting this particular person would be less obvious if I'd been there in person and not reading it in a book.
Third, the protagonists are both problematic. Blomqvist is an unusually passive character. Generally likable but rather two-dimensional, he plods through the story not doing much of anything until the climactic moment in which he does the most stupid thing imaginable--the thing you see constantly in the kind of bad horror film where you sit in the audience and scream, "No! Don't go ALONE into the basement/attic/scary haunted cornfield!!" Despite this, nearly every woman he meets leaps into bed with him.
The female protagonist, Elizabeth Salander, is stronger and more interesting, but also less consistent. Once moment, she's a socially inept, passive victim who has been labeled incompetent and made a ward of the state. The next, she's a socially sophisticated Mata Hari type. There's no reason at all for her to still be under the thumb of the state, considering her genius and also her genial relationship with the kindly elderly man who is her guardian at the beginning of the book. Her failure to get out from under the system when she had a guardian who would clearly have helped her seemed entirely designed to make her a victim of her new guardian (a beast of a man assigned to her case when her original guardian has a stroke). Yes, she does get her revenge (in a way that's not especially believable), but not before she's put through a lot of gratuitous sexual humiliation.
Both characters demonstrate some rather serious moral lapses that aren't generally seen in protagonists who aren't deliberately set up as antiheroes, and there's a strong undercurrent of mysogeny in the book, despite Larsson's obvious intent to condemn the all-too-common abuse of women in his country. The novel's original title (in Swedish) means Men Who Hate Women, and that's a fair description of the book's theme. Blomqvist's womanizing seems to me to be an illustration of a different, more subtle brand of mysogeny, but it seems unlikely that the author meant it that way. In any case, there's no doubt the author made some unusual choices with this book, and while they didn't work for some of us (Lee Goldberg has an interesting blog post about the book here), they obviously worked for others, who made the book a bestseller through word-of-mouth.
All that said, there was much to like about the book, and it generated one of the most interesting book discussions we've had. Despite the books flaws, I'll read the next two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. (To be honest, I would probably read that last one just for the title.)
But the question remains: How did such a flawed book become an international phenomenon? Reading the reader reviews on Amazon and on Mr. Larsson's website, it seems like the orginality of the Elizabeth Salander character, the exotic location, and the intriguing setup made the difference. Some people thought the pacing was excellent, though others found it plodding. Whatever their reasons, it's a good illustration of the fact that, if you can engage your readers, you can get away with breaking the rules.