The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: A Review
Some Background on the Trilogy:
I never expected to like the book even with its intriguing title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (published 2005, in English 2008). From what I had heard, the book focused on violence against women and the back story explored corporate level finances and corruption. Even though a friend was recommending it, I was doubtful that I would find the book engaging. As I started reading, I kept thinking my prediction was right—I was having trouble getting into the story. But then, in a flash, I was hooked and voraciously read for hours and hours until I finished all 590 pages.
And not only did I enjoy the book, I immediately sought out the next two books in the trilogy: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006, in English in US January 2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007, in English in US May 2010). Stieg Larsson is the author of this masterful trilogy. The novels were all translated from Swedish into English by Reg Keeland. One source says that 40 million copies of the series sold internationally in 5 years. Not all reviews were favorable, but that did not keep each book—as soon as it was published—from speeding to the top of various best seller lists. The author won various awards for his efforts. As noted in The Sunday Times (London), “The completion of the trilogy confirms Stieg Larsson as one of the great talents of contemporary crime fiction.”
Larsson lived in Sweden and worked as editor in chief of the magazine Expo and was a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations. He used this experience and expertise in creating one of his main characters and in building the complex back stories within the novels. Unfortunately, these novels are Larsson’s only fictional contributions. He died in 2004, after submitting the manuscripts for all three books. The novels were all published posthumously, first in Swedish and then later in English (first in the United Kingdom and then also in the United States) and in many other languages. The books are being made into movies in both Sweden and the United States, but I have not yet seen any of these films.
Larsson’s three novels—often collectively called the Millennium Series—received widespread commercial and critical acclaim. Wikipedia does a good job giving a detailed summary and general report on basic response for each book—see the links earlier in this review. Spoiler Alert: If you are planning to read the novels, avoid the summaries—they give away all the mystery! Two reviews—one by David Kamp, NY Times and the other by Kate Mosse, The Guardian—give a good overview on the novels as well. I read these sources after I finished reading the novels and drawing my own conclusions on their merits.
The basic consensus about the trilogy is offered below though three review excerpts quoted on the third novel’s dust jacket:
“Larsson’s vivid characters, the depth of the details across the three books, the powerfully imaginative plot and the sheer verve of the writing make the trilogy a masterpiece of its genre.” The Economist
“Larsson entertain[s] readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest. . . Consistently enthralling.” The Washington Post
“Just when I was thinking there wasn’t anything new on the horizon, along comes Stieg Larsson with this wonderfully unique story. I was completely absorbed.” Michael Connelly
Each novel within Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is a good read. But taken together, they become an even more carefully structured story. The characters are memorable and the back stories offer social criticism that can transcend cultures. The dominant lessons throughout the novels focus on friendship, loyalty and morality—important lessons for today’s society.
The characters in the novels are strong and believable. The title character is Lisbeth Salander, but she is not a girl no matter how she looks. She is 24 at the start of the first novel. She is small and petite and looks and feels like an outcast of society. She has numerous tattoos and body piercings and refuses to interact with most of those around her. She appears eccentric, sullen, mysterious. She is also a computer genius with a photographic memory who can easily uncover useful research on almost any topic.
As soon as Lisbeth enters the first novel, the reader is hooked to see how her life will unfold. In the first novel she is an indispensable researcher who saves the day; by the second novel she is part of the main action and eventually a murder suspect. In the third, her defense and trial are underway. As the novels progress, Lisbeth shows her violent streak but also her own sense of fierce loyalty and morality—based on her own rules. In the first novel, Larsson introduces the surface mystery of Lisbeth and then reveals some of the truths of her life and background in the second novel. By the third, this “girl” is maturing as she learns to accept friendship and help from others.
The protagonist of the novels is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and part owner of a magazine called Millennium. The first novel opens when he is being convicted of libel for a story he wrote and published for which he did not provide proof. This circumstance allows/forces him to take a special assignment, exploring a 30-year old case for an elderly corporate magnate. Lisbeth becomes his researcher, and together they piece together the tale of a serial killer from the past that is still in action in the present.
As the story unfolds, we see that Mikael is driven and meticulous as a journalist, but he is friendly and engaging as a man. He builds easy rapport with women that often turns into easy sexual encounters. Although he does not readily commit to anyone, he honestly likes and respects the women in his life. He is a handsome 40-something guy who may actually be contemplating commitment by the end of the third novel. His growth is not as evident as Lisbeth’s.
There are many other characters in the novels. Several appear in all three because of their relationships with the two primary characters. Erika Berger is Mikael’s business partner and sometime lover in the magazine they co-won, and his sister Annika Giovanni becomes Lisbeth’s lawyer in the third novel. Two men are closely and positively associated with Lisbeth; they both see beyond her appearance and value her worth and abilities. One is Holger Palmgren, her state-appointed guardian, and the other is Dragan Armansky, her sometime boss who hires her to conduct research for his security company. These characters give the reader a way to view the different sides of the two main characters, adding depth to each characterization as new details unfold.
Other characters surface as needed, some appearing in several novels. There are cops and doctors and friends of Lisbeth, including some unique computer hackers. There are tormentors of Lisbeth as well as we see her abused in the past and the present. Most of the characters are realistic and well-drawn. A few seem one-dimensional, but their weak persona do not undermine the story’s action or the credibility of the primary characters. Several—Modig, Linder, Figuerola, even Mia and Harriett—are strong women! The array of characters presented throughout the three novels help make the stories come to life.
The stories themselves are well crafted. The overall story is told chronologically with the pacing moving faster and faster as the novels progress. Between novel 1 and novel 2, several months have passed. Between novel 2 and novel 3, barely an hour of time has passed. Most of the action is bold, vivid, dramatic and compelling. Some parts—typically the attempts to tie up loose ends—seem a bit sluggish. Also, a few plot points seem almost too coincidental. At one point, Lisbeth just happens to see a name from her past in someone else’s email and that draws her further into the action. Although a bit contrived, such coincidences do not undermine the story’s forward progress or the reader’s engagement with the story and characters.
In fact, Larsson is masterful in presenting each novel’s plot. Once you have read all three, you can look back and see the breadcrumbs Larsson dropped, enticing the reader’s curiosity about characters, issues, and story line. The reader wants more and more. This expectancy is further heightened as Larsson moves at a fast pace back and forth between chapters devoted to each character and his/her part of the story. The interplay is seductive and keeps the reader turning the page to see how things turn out. What Entertainment Weekly noted about the second novel truly pertains to all three: “A gripping, stay-up-all night read.”
Perhaps a comparison to television crime dramas would help place these novels in the crime genre. The first novel could be seen as an episode of Cold Case, the TV show that explored past crimes that had never been solved. For Larsson, the crime is solved, but its outcome never quite gets turned over to the police. The past events become as vivid and alive as the present-day details that get mired in their own mystery. The second and third novels present the two classic sides of the original Law & Order series. Crimes are committed, police (and journalists) investigate, and eventually there is a trial to bring things to some sense of closure. Violence against women as a recurring concern brings Law & Order SVU into play, and the exploration of motives and compelling circumstances of the criminals is reminiscent of Law & Order CI.
Each novel also has at least one back story that explores a societal concern. The first has Mikael concerned with financial fraud on a grand scale but also looks at crimes against women through the cold case being solved. The second novel has two researchers telling the story of women being sold through sexual trafficking which ultimately has a subplot of espionage and misconduct by Sweden’s secret police. The third novel looks at the secret police, the judicial system and its treatment of those who should be protected, and in a more limited way cyber bullying. The journalists and researchers are the heroes who work to bring truth to light about these various back stories.
Finally, when Larsson presents these societal concerns together with his strong characters, he creates a moral core that is interwoven throughout all three novels. Part of his message is the problems in society that need to be exposed and corrected. But Larsson constantly looks at how these broad problems impact the individual. For Larsson, his journalist characters—especially Mikael, the character most like himself—are the heroes, constantly looking for truth. But the characters also demonstrate integrity and morality, even if their actions do not always serve them well.
Mikael actually defines friendship at one point, emphasizing the trust and respect that must be evident for there to be true friendship. Lisbeth, who is often violent and reactive, is also very moral, even if she is following her own set of rules. One lesson she learned well from her guardian Palmgren is the need to be mindful of consequences as she decides what action to take—and to be prepared to accept those consequences. Through his quirky characters and the often salacious elements of his story—rape, fraud, conspiracy, murder, police cover-up, abuse of child labor, sexual trafficking—Larsson is actually championing a more moral society.
Overall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is a good read. But if you plan to give the first novel a shot, plan on reading all three. And plan on having the other two available as soon as possible after you finish the first novel. You’ll be hooked and will want to keep reading to see how things turn out for Libeth and Mikael. As Time Out New York concludes, “Larsson’s novel[s] could serve as the definition of page-turner.”
HAVE YOU READ THE TRILOGY? WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT ELSE ARE YOU READING?