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Sunday, June 13, 2010
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson
The back of this book tells you that 12 million people have already bought it.
Was I really the only one in that multitude to find it, at best, average?
I also wonder how my opinion can differ so much from all the eminent reviewers who are quoted inside the cover.
One of them calls the author ‘the Tolstoy’ of crime… Did he mean Leo? Or the less well known Kevin Tolstoy?
Maybe it’s because it falls into a genre I’m relatively unfamiliar with: ‘crime thrillers’. Also it contains a great deal of that thing I have previously expressed my intolerance for: unpleasantness.
There is a great deal of very detailed unpleasantness in this book, but what really irked me, was that I found it strikingly unoriginal unpleasantness.
If I’m going to subject myself to fictional ghastliness – when there is so much of the real variety around us - I do at least expect it to be interesting. Show me something I’ve never seen before.
For that reason, the book which kept popping into my mind as I read this one – particularly in the later stages – was The Silence of the Lambs.
That crime thriller was spectacularly unpleasant in places, but the scope and methodology of it were so twisted, the psychology of the psychopaths so fascinatingly complex – yet utterly believable - I would put it on a list of the best books I have ever read.
If I’m going to have nasty, I want brilliant nasty.
I couldn’t sleep for a week after reading The Silence of the Lambs. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo kept me awake reading into the night too, but not so much with suspense as irritation.
For starters: I have over my writing desk a piece of A4 paper bearing the words ‘Don’t tell it – show it’, reminding me to get the back story and essential facts over in the course of narrative action, rather than in long tedious pages of explaining.
In future, I might just prop a copy of this book there, as the first third of it is an object lesson in how not to impart a large amount of background information to the reader of fiction.
With the plot centred around a missing person in a wealthy family of Gothic complexity and – to the foreign eye – bonkers names, at times I didn’t feel I was so much reading a novel, as trying to memorise the lineage of medieval Swedish kings and queens.
Now who came first again? Gottfried or Harald?
Then there was the clunky translation. It kept using awkward words like ‘anon’, meaning later – ‘he said he would see her anon’. And in the first half the word ‘straddled’ is used in a sexual context, at least three times. ‘She straddled him…’
Couldn’t she have climbed onto his lap and sat astride him? Or pushed him back, straddling his legs with hers? Or slid onto him, pressing herself against his… anyway.
As I am currently nit combing my own 739 page manuscript to remove extraneous usages of the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘hilarious’, it annoys me that the translator of this one, Reg Keeland – or his editor – didn’t make that tiny effort. With search and replace, it’s not so hard.
There are also repeated mentions of the Scandinavian dish the ‘open sandwich’, which is one piece of rye bread with a lot of stuff (usually involving smoked fish) piled up on it.
I’m familiar with the genre because my mother got very obsessed with them in the late 1960s, around the time the duvet and the first Habitat furniture came into our lives.
I’m sure the Swedes have a snappier term for this national snack and were I translating from that language, I would have taken the liberty of simply calling it a sandwich.
‘He made himself a sandwich of pickled herrings and cucumbers and gazed out of the window into the dark night, wondering when next a woman he barely knew would straddle him…’
Now read that again inserting the word ‘open’ before sandwich. Not so snappy, huh?
Every time I came upon those wretched words ‘open sandwich’ (and they never stop snacking, these people) I felt like I was reading a pamphlet from a provincial tourism office.
‘Be our welcome guest and enjoy our smoked fish and traditional open sendwijes!’
I know that’s a very small point in a 538-page book, stuffed with perverts, Nazis, computer hackers, Swedish nymphos (all stereotypes confirmed) and rogue financiers, but it’s exactly the kind of stone-in-my-shoe that can wreck a reading experience for me.
Another thing I found peculiar was that after the main crime is solved – and at least I didn’t guess whodunit until the point where you were supposed to – the book continues for ages, going off onto a whole new tangent.
The last time I was struck by such a sense of a bolt-on extra was Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice which careers off into another adventure that happens after the fabulously dashing hero and the female lead have not only got it on (swoon swoon), but are actually married.
At least Shute had the excuse of composing on a manual typewriter. In the age of the laptop such authorial lapses are much less forgivable.
So that’s everything that hacked me off. On the plus side, there are some interesting characters – the girl in the title, in particular. I just didn’t find any of them very believable.
I did like, however – despite the Open Sandwich factor – the ongoing references to the landmarks of the Swedish year. It’s made me quite excited to celebrate midsummer and very keen to try glogg, which is drunk at Christmas. (Fancy a glogg? No thank you, I’ve just straddled an open sandwich.)
I was also interested to get some insight into computer hacking and the intricacies of off-shore and secret Swiss banking. Well, quite interested. I am more interested in glogg.
So, it’s a complex yarn, with a wide-ranging cast of damaged nutters and some very lovingly described great unpleasantness against women. Will I be reading the next two books in the trilogy? No, I will not.
And now I think of it, the last book I felt I ‘should’ read because so many other people had was The Da Vinci Code. Enough said.
(PS And yes, I do know that the author of this trilogy died suddenly before knowing it’s success, in a literary parallel to Eva Cassidy’s story. It’s very sad, but it doesn’t make me like the book.)
Reading satisfaction: 3
Recommend to best girlfriend: 2
Recommend to mother: 2
Recommend to niece: 0
Recommend to gay best friend: 3
Recommend to man pal: 3
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 0
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.