Monday, November 08, 2010

BOOKS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Bear with me on this. There was once a TV show called Happy Days that eventually focused on a supporting character who initially was verbally uncommunicative and wore a leather jacket most of the time. There was also a series of books called the Millenium Trilogy which featured a supporting character that everybody seems to focus on. As to being sparse on words and often found in leather .... ah ... ditto. Really, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is NOT principally about Lisbeth Salander!

You wouldn't know that, given the book covers, the book titles and the Swedish movies starring Noomi Rapace as the punk hacker and information wizard Salander. But really, the books, at least the first one, are more about Mikael Blomkvist, the publisher, editor and reporter for Millenium magazine, a business expose magazine based out of Stockholm. Salander certainly plays a large part in the initial volume of the Millenium Trilogy, but she doesn't actually meet Blomkvist until after the half-way mark in the book. But, because all three books have titles starting with "The Girl Who..." the supposition is that Salander is the star. Certainly, the widely-hailed movies, each with an imposing picture of Rapace as Salander, perpetuate the myth. Salander is more central in each movie, by necessity. These are long books, 'flabby,' according to one reviewer I read. And the parts that were cut out were mostly those devoted to the internal mental meanderings of Blomkvist.

An American version of the books is coming out, with Rooney Mara in the star-turning role Rapace played. I know all about the physical transformations Mara will be undergoing to play the part, just as Rapace did. I don't know who's playing Blomkvist. I could look it up, of course. But I'm trying to make a point. I had bought into the Salander hysteria too.

Which is a shame. Because Blomkvist is a truly interesting character, the one Larsson makes his own. He too was a reporter and a writer before fashioning the books. A reported fourth exists. Whether it ever sees the light of day is up in the air. His heirs are fighting over his estate after his too-young death almost immediately after handing in the three books in the series.

Blomkvist is a bit of a satyr. He has an ethical side that's elastic enough not to defend himself against libel charges because he's guilty of NOT having the evidence to back up the truth he printed, but also to regularly bed married women and ladies half his age (and some). He suppresses the truth he uncovers in a year-long attempt to find out what happened to Harriet Vanger more than 30 years ago. And he can nod sagely at the 'criminal' hacking Salander does TOO him and FOR him later.

The story starts basically with Blomkvist being told a story by a friend about the misdeeds of a slimy toad by the name of Hans-Erik Wennerström. After investigating the story, opportunity allows for further nasty details to emerge in the article. Unfortunately for Blomkvist, the first part was provably true. The latter part, not so much, since it's been a complete setup by Wennerström. As a result, Blomkvist and Millenium loses a libel trial and Blomkvist is sentenced to three months in jail. Disgraced and needing to distance himself from the magazine to try an ensure its survival, Blomkvist arranges his own firing by partner and some-time lover Erika Berger.

Which makes him available when Henrik Vanger arranges a meeting with Blomkvist. It takes place on Hedeby Island, just over the bridge from Hedestad, which is basically north of nowhere in Sweden. And about as far from Stockholm as you can get. Vanger has an offer that's too good to turn down, although Blomkvist tries mightily hard. He wants his family chronicles written ... as a cover for Blomkvist to re-investigate the decades old disappearance of his neice Harriet. It's basically a locked island mystery that has defied all investigations into it. And still no solution. But somebody is sending Vanger pressed flowers yearly and it's driving the once CEO of once-powerful Vanger Industries mad. And it wasn't like he wasn't already obsessed with Harriet's disappearance (murder?). He's collected shelves of data. He knows he's nearing death and wants one last fresh set of eyes to look at the evidence.

Soooo, Blomkvist does that. He's not so much interested in the money as a promise of a new bit of evidence against Wennerström. That's the carrot that drives him. But along the way, he too begins to share in Henrik's mania. The island is actually the Vanger family compound. And let's just say, the Vangers are a weird group. They marry and separate, but never divorce. Family members that are next door neighbours don't talk to each other, or call their daughters 'whores.' There's a thread of Nazism that runs through the family and if they aren't Nazis then some are fascists. Henrik's got a lawyer on retainer that seems a nice, old man, but turns out to have a bit of steel in him. All in all, it's like living in a nest of vipers.

Thanks to Blomkvist's daughter and the prodigious talents of Salander, Blomkvist unearths old evidence and new, and, rather unexpectedly, solves the mystery. With many, many pages still to go. And here's where the flab comes in. Rather than stopping there, Larsson then has Blomkvist go at Wennerström again. This time with all kinds of supporting proof provided by Salander. And a different outcome from the initial one makes for some closure. I guess. For me, the 'romance' of the book was solving the Harriet mystery. After that, it seemed procedural. But until then, a very much spectacular book.

Guess it's time to get around to Salander. She's hard-core unpleasant and knows it. She's had a rough life and, even in her twenties, is a ward of the government, having been declared non compos mentis, needing guardianship. Her old guardian dies early in the book and her new one is a nasty piece of work. Her response to his nastiness is frightening and vicious. And effective. Salander's mother passes away during the book, which should have been a relief, but isn't. Salander does get close to Blomkvist--really, really close--but in the end leaves furious at a man she admitted she loved to herself. Otherwise, the ambi-sexual Salander seems to do things from a second-to-second need to dull pain, rather than anything out of joy. 

One last Salander note. Much has been made of Mara's transformation. She's been spotted on camera with a lip-ring. And reportedly, she's bleached her eyebrows, shorn her hair and has had nipple piercings. All to make sure she looks as described in the book. Well, in the book, Salander is described as anorexic and 4 ft 10. Larsson never mentions nipple piercings and Salander has eyebrow and nose piercings, but no lip ring. Unless Mara starves herself into the role and shrinks, there isn't going to be much backing up for that PR rep for the film that ensured she'd look like the character in the book. 

Is that important? Who knows? But isn't it the little things in mysteries that are so important?

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