Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I mostly enjoyed this book as I read it, but part of the fun was trying to figure out why the rest of the world loves it as they do. So, when things got slow – and, against what I’d heard, it does have plenty of slow spots – I tried to parse the formula that’s been so successful.

When I first started thinking about detective fiction (drawn early to noir) the old-timers on the discussion boards made a distinction between hardboiled fiction and “cozies.” Hardboiled meant a lot of things but, above all, it connoted a sense that the world was dark and the universe indifferent. At the end of a noir work (and I generally equate noir and hardboiled), even with the mystery solved, there’s a sense that things are as fundamentally corrupt or cold as ever. We may know the particulars of a specific crime, but the deeper malice or philosophical emptiness remains.

Cozies work the other way. Solving the mystery means restoring a disrupted order. It may be Murder She Wrote or some other show in which the protagonist runs into a murderer week after week, but there remains an underlying sense that the crime is a violation of some governing decency. There are killers, but they’re anomalies. The world is fundamentally benign.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has plenty of horrifying crimes and graphic sex, so it’s pretty far from Agatha Christie, but it’s ultimately a cozy, not a noir. It plays by fairly established rules – it calls itself a “locked room mystery,” a classic cozy formula, twice before declaring that it isn’t really that. But it really is just that; as evil as Martin Vanger turns out to be, he does not represent a darker world at large.

Cozies are, in the end, philosophically conservative. They are comforting in that they assert that the world we know – the order of our community, society, and universe – is the world that ought to be. The pattern that runs through the story – order, disruption, and restored order – leaves that order all the more established. It’s confronted an apparent threat and emerged from it. What hasn’t killed it has seemed to make it stronger.

So, to answer my question, I think this novel did so well because it amplified the apparent threat to conventional order but allowed it to reassert itself at the end. [SPOILER] The long final two chapters, when the mystery is solved and Blomkvist is writing the expose of Wennerstrom, are as much about reasserting a comforting order as they are denouement. For purposes of the story, they drag. For purposes of reminding us the depths of the threat to our order – whether it be serial killers or financial gangsters – it’s relevant for asserting that there are “good” guys (we get the term “good” a few times toward the end) looking out for the not-needed-to-be-defined greater good.

I think the other reason it did so well is the character of Salander. She is a striking figure, someone whose suffering and condition make her a good underdog. She can’t figure out how to fit into our “ordinary community,” so she moves around its edges. It’s a nice touch to [SPOILER] end things with her inability to understand her relationship with Blomkvist. She becomes, in effect, a protector of the decent world of which she can never be a part.

In that capacity, interesting as she can be, she’s a kind of high-tech superhero. She is both outside and above the rest of us, capable of feats of hacking that give her powers to do good or ill. Hurray for us that she chooses good, but the ultimate flatness of that situation makes me have to dock this one a star. And I have to take another star for its aggrandizement of journalists. Blomkvist – the Larsson stand-in – gets it all: all the women want to sleep with him, he solves the fundamental crime, and the clumsy final 40 or so pages celebrate the trade, presenting a too-easy vision of journalists as the not-so-secret heroes of modern democracy.

There are fun moments, but this simply isn’t as shocking or as gripping as I’d heard. It’s just a once popular formula dusted off and sexed-up, but it doesn’t ask us to think anywhere near as hard as a decent noir novel does. I liked the ride, but I’m probably getting off the bus here.

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