30 January 2011

Writing on Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I realize I'm a bit late weighing in on this book---it seems like most people I know have read it by now. As a result, I approached it with the question"what made this book so popular?" Even before starting the book, several people warned me that it didn't "get good" until a more than a hundred pages into the book. The start was slow; lots of backstory and narrative with very little present day action. So, obviously, the key to this book wasn't the "hook" at the beginning of the novel. Nor was it the premise made it popular. I watched a few trailers for the movie and even those had a hard time capturing the plot in a few catchy sentences.
I've heard a few people say that the "girl" in the book, Lisbeth, is one of the most fascinating new characters in literature. I'm not sure I buy into the hyperbole about Lisbeth. She is an excellently drawn character, but I'm not sure is solely responsible for making the book popular. (A side note--the original title for the book was Men Who Hate Women.)
In the end, I concluded that several factors have let to its popularity:
  • A generous amount of sex and violence
  • A likable (though ultimately forgettable) protagonist
  • A compelling and somewhat complex mystery
  • And, of course, an extremely well-drawn secondary protagonist (Lisbeth)
I agree with the masses who say Dragon Tattoo is a good read. On the other hand, I felt it could have been better. It had several of the shortcomings of a first time novelist. The pacing was off in places, it had sections of unnecessary or excessive narrative, and even a few POV/ head-hopping issues. (The version I had was also poorly translated in some places, but that's not the author's fault)

What do you think? What make this book work? Could it have been better?

p.s. Did you all know that Larsson was a huge sci-fi fan and even wrote a few sci-fi stories?


Betsy Dornbusch said...

I'm not a Larsson fan, but my mother, who reads almost exclusively mystery set in foreign locales, is. She loved the descriptions of the city and island, and so I'd call "World-building" a big plus for the book.

She thought Lisbeth was so great, too. I say people who think she's so great haven't read Charlie Huston, George RR Martin, James Ellroy, and half a dozen other writers whose writing and characterization of darkness leave Lisbeth in the dust.

And I guessed the mystery before it was over, too. I NEVER am able to do that.

That said, I don't argue with success, and it's worth examining on that front at least.

lesleylsmith said...

One thing I think you left out, Dave, is the amazingly-evil evil. It doesn't get any worse than Nazi serial killers! :( This made the book very black and white, i.e. good versus evil.
Hhm...now that I think about it, the Harry Potter books had this, too...

Another thing Larsson's books had in common with Harry Potter is a huge buzz. So, maybe once a book achieves a certain amount of buzz, that makes it more appealing to folks? :)

It's interesting to think about. The book business is not entirely logical. :)

David E. Hughes said...

I thought about the setting issue, but decided to leave that our. It was a Swedish book originally written for Swedes so the world was not special for its intended audience. Also, I had a hard time picturing the settings--description wasn't Larsson's strong point.
I agree that the evil evil was good, too. In fact, lots of evil in the book