I should start by saying that yes, I realise this review is probably redundant, as Stieg Larsson’s books have sold more copies than the Guinness Book of the New Testament. But has anyone considered the three people in the world who haven’t read the book? HAVE THEY? No, I didn’t think so.
The reason I wanted to read and review the books is because I’d left it long enough so I could get through all the initial praise, then the inevitable backlash with scorn usually reserved for the next Dan Brown effort (I still maintain that The Da Vinci Code, hogwash though it is, is still a great page-turner). It seems modern fiction can only be successful up to a point before people turn on it. Anyway, I digress. Given the story arc, it’s best reviewing the trilogy in one as well. When I first bought the books I thought they would be three standalone stories, but instead they are laid out like the Matrix movies, one fully-encompassed story and then a two-parter.
Cutting to the chase, did I enjoy the books? Absolutely. It is intelligent, thrilling writing. It’s by no means perfect (and I’ll come to that later) but the characters are for the most part well-rounded, empathetic individuals which ring true. I personally found ‘Dragon Tattoo’ to be the best of the three. It’s a self-contained crime thriller which ticks all the boxes and more, while the following two books are more of a character-study.
On those characters, most of the praise lavished upon Larsson is for his writing of Lisbeth Salander, the socially-afflicted, savant, titular character in the series. As a protagonist, she is unique. Part of the joy of reading is that you imagine yourself in the adventures with the heroes. With Salander, you get the feeling that if you met her in real-life she would treat you with contempt and more than likely kick you in the crotch. She is infuriating yet resilient and you warm to her without trying. It’s an amazing feat on Larsson’s part. He is also praised for the fact that he is writing a strong woman, something still beyond a lot of male authors, yet I think he did a better job on that front with his writing of Erika Berger. Sure, there are still elements of ‘what a man wishes a woman was like’ in her, but on the whole she is the most believable. Strong yet fallible, confident yet wracked with self-doubt, I found her to be the most enthralling character.
It’s not all good news there though. His Mikael Blomqvist is sheer wish-fulfilment, and having every woman he meets go instantly weak at the knees is both false and egocentric. I find myself liking Blomqvist, before the next page brings on an “Oh come on!” moment. It’s a shame.
Part of the criticism levelled Larsson’s way is that there is a lot of filler in the books. Yes, there is, and reading page after page on Swedish financial institutions and regulations, or the entire history of it’s intelligence agencies, is trying, but the reason the books have been successful is because they are not like usual crime fiction. Without all the information he provides, the story wouldn’t be as rewarding as it is. Larsson was clearly angry about the way institutions in Sweden are set up and run, so he was determined to absolutely annihilate them in every way. Something he achieves. I haven’t researched into what the fallout in Sweden was after the books were published, but I imagine some very serious questions were asked.
With the “filler” comes problems though. Larsson introduces peripheral figures almost every chapter, gives them backstories and then shoves them into the background again a few chapters later. Trying to remember who is who among the ‘Erikssons’, ‘Martenssons’, ‘Fastes’ etc, along with all of the Swedish place names Larsson insists on including at every given opportunity, is tough. Maybe I’m just an uncultured swine.
The only other criticism I will level at Larsson is over the ending. And this is why I prefer ‘Dragon Tattoo’ to the other two. The ending to the series is an utter disappointment. Whereas ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is highly satisfying, you spend another two lengthy books investing yourself and being built up by the author for a barnstorming finale. It doesn’t come. Resolutions just ‘kind of happen’ and it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Of course it’s hard to deliver on a promise such as that Larsson laid out, but it was as though he wanted it to be over with and threw in the towel. Disappointing.
Overall, the series is worth the success it has received and is worth the effort you put in, and you will need to put that effort in. But the characters are unlike anything out there and have to be appreciated, along with the pure cleverness in the writing.