A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience

March 21, 2010 at 5:44 pm (Book clubs, books)

The engine driving the plot of Stieg Larsson’s thriller is a cold case mystery involving the disappearance of a teen-age girl. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist is asked by the girl’s uncle, wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger, to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who went missing some forty years previous.  Clues are naturally thin on the ground. Nevertheless, Blomqvist, whose professional life is in crisis at the moment, agrees to take on the investigation.

At the same time all of this is going on, the reader is getting to know Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl in the novel’s title. At the outset, she is a researcher for Milton Security, but she’s obviously not cut out for a conventional employment situation. For one thing, she is a hacker par excellence, and feels free to use her computer skills in the pursuit of information, going so far as to break into the hard drives of other computers without a second thought. Where this activity is concerned, scruples has she none!

It soon becomes clear that Salander’s tough exterior masks a troubled, wounded soul. Then there’s the barely concealed rage, liable to erupt if provoked.  (There’s a reason why her incorporated persona is named Wasp Enterprises.)

The group called the Literary Ladies is comprised of current and retired library employees. Led by Joanne, we tackled Dragon Tattoo last Sunday night. It was apparent from the outset of our discussion that the multifaceted personality of Lisbeth Salander was what really grabbed people. And this was true not just for us but for a world wide readership. For this novel – in fact, all three novels in Larsson’s so-called Millennium Trilogy, are a publishing phenomenon. This, in an era when the printed word is supposedly becoming passé. One can but wonder…

Not everyone loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Marge, my “partner in crime” and in general a passionate lover of crime fiction, had no use for it at all. For her, the novel veered from scenes of grotesque violence to those containing tedious descriptions of high-tech derring-do. She was alternately bored and repulsed. (Emma described herself as “intrigued but appalled.”) And how, Marge wondered, could people tolerate the episode in which a cat is tortured and killed?

It’s been about a year since I read Dragon Tattoo. I have forgotten many particulars, but I remembered what happened to the cat. I have encountered similar incidents in other novels, one quite recently. I am of the opinion that writers tend to use cats in such scenarios rather than dogs because dogs have a higher lovability quotient than cats (or so some misguided souls seem to think). Myself, I could do without such plot devices altogether, whether used for the purpose of driving home a point or  advancing the story line, or  serving as a symbolic act . (In this last instance, I’m thinking of Lennie crushing a puppy to death in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Yes, I know it’s a classic, but my sympathies are with the puppy and ever will be!)

The violence depicted in the novel was disturbing for others as well. The question was raised: have we as readers come to expect a certain amount of it? Have we become de-sensitized, so that the ante must be continually upped?

The following comments were made by Jonathan Shapiro in his Los Angeles Times review of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell:

Mankell and Larsson have sold millions of books around the world. Yet Larsson, who died in 2004, remains the bigger star, thanks to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequel (the third installment, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” is due in May). High-tech thrillers with pornographic sensibilities, Larsson’s sleek, guilty pleasures are filled with the kind of graphic, stylized violence that appeals to a depressingly large swath of humanity. More like novelized computer games, the books even have a hyper-sexualized, sadomasochistic-tinged heroine at their center, as different in style and substance from Mankell’s Roslin as one could imagine. Like teenage gamers waiting for the newest version of their obsession, Larsson’s fans are eager for his third book. But they do so with bittersweet anticipation: Unless Larsson’s publishers are able to produce a fourth book, which is believed to exist as an incomplete manuscript, this will be his last work. Game over.

Joanne is a terrific book talker and discussion leader. She came armed with a great deal of information about the book and its author. Shortly after completing the novels that comprise the Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson suffered a massive heart attack. He died in 2004 at the age of fifty. There’s a lot out there on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publishing of the novels, and some information about Larsson’s professional life prior to that, but not much about his earlier life. The best accounting of his youth that I could find was on the Gale database Biography Resource Center.

I’ve known Joanne for a number of years now. She is a passionate book lover. I think of her as favoring literary fiction, with a slight preference for the quirky.  I confess that initially, her enthusiasm for Dragon Tattoo baffled me. But as she expounded on the various qualities of the novel that she found intriguing, even irresistible, I began to understand. For her, as for so many other readers, Lisbeth Salander is the big draw. And she had some fascinating facts at hand concerning this character. First:

The idea of Lisbeth Salander grew out of Stieg Larsson’s speculation as to what Pippi Longstocking would have been like as a grown woman. (“What?!” we chorused in amazement.) And second:

You can now “friend” Lisbeth Salander on Facebook! One could take this as an indicator that folks are losing their grip on reality, but after all, this sort of thing has been going on re Sherlock Holmes for over a hundred years.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the newly released Swedish film

Like me, Joanne was also enthralled by the propulsive quality of Larsson’s storytelling. We agreed that powerful as Salander’s charisma is, Mikael Blomqvist has some of his own.  His strategy for solving the Harriet Vanger conundrum unfolds in a very compelling manner.

Joanne enjoyed the way in which Dragon Tattoo mixes it up genre-wise. This is a hard novel to categorize. It is not a police procedural (a fact which initially disappointed my own expectations). It’s not what you would  term literary – is it crime fiction? A thriller? Suspense? As to this last, we must keep in mind that “suspense” is an element of the plot, not a genre. Any truly gripping story – fiction or nonfiction – contains suspenseful elements. This would include, for instance,  Jane Austen’s Emma, which P.D. James recently cited as one of her favorite mysteries!  Quoth the Baroness:

‘But perhaps the most interesting example of a mainstream novel which is also a detective story is the brilliantly structured Emma by Jane Austen. Here the secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognised relationships between the limited number of characters. The story is confined to a closed society in a rural setting, which was to become common in detective fiction, and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues (eight immediately come to mind) — some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their right partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.

(From Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James)

One of my favorite parts of last Sunday night’s discussion came when we considered what books to recommend to Stieg Larsson’s readers once they have finished the trilogy. In Readers’ Advisory parlance, these are known as “read-alikes.” The obvious place to look is at other Scandinavian authors of crime fiction; the obvious person to look at among that august cohort is Henning Mankell, a leader in the current renaissance of Scandinavian crime fiction. I have long been a fan of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. The first one I read was One Step Behind, and it is still among my favorites. Neo-Naziism in Sweden was a bête noire  of Steig Larsson’s. Henning Mankell tackled that issue head on in The Return of the Dancing Master.

We considered adding Karin Fossum to the list but decided against doing so, as her novels tend to be more psychological and character-based.  Their tone is autumnal, even wistful, whereas Larsson novels tend to be fueled by a kind of propulsive outrage. I suggested The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Errikson, an author more crime fiction lovers need to know about. And Joanne reminded us of the ten Martin Beck novels written between 1965 and 1975 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  This landmark series of  procedurals is reckoned  a  founding work in the pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Eve suggested the novels of Ann Cleeves, with their vivid setting in the Shetland region of northernmost Scotland. She also suggested Kate Atkinson, whose When Will There Be Good News opens with a scene of such shocking violence that I almost put the book down. I continued reading it mostly because of Case Histories, a novel whose mix of humor and pathos I found deeply moving. I ended by liking Good News, but not as much as Case Histories.

Modesty Blaise was suggested as a protagonist similar to Lisbeth Salander, but we dismissed those books (unfairly?) as dated. There are the Stella Mooney novels by David Lawrence. This is a seemingly short-lived series, intriguing though violent. Stella has a fraught love life and alternates between toughness and vulnerability – remind you of anyone? I would also suggest The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. This provocative work features as a main character a female doctor who possesses a beyond- the -pale persona similar in some ways to Lisbeth Salander’s.

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Joanne went from our Sunday discussion to a Thursday session on the same book. (This was the Noontime Book Discussion, which meets regularly at the Central Library.) The fact that this was a somewhat more decorous group allowed for Joanne to expound at greater length at the outset and without interruption (a thing which rarely happens with the Literary Ladies, bless us!). I was delighted. I do think that Joanne could talk about the phone book, and her articulate expression and sharp wit would keep me enthralled!

The interesting thing to emerge from this discussion was that participants by and large did not care all that much for Dragon Tattoo. Aside from objecting to the violence, members felt that with the exception of Lisbeth Salander, other female characters were not sufficiently developed. One member felt that the author was throwing out too many messages.

Now I really do need to wind down here, so once again I’ll return to Lisbeth Salander. We wondered why Larsson made her so small of stature. The Pippi Longstocking connection, perhaps? Someone used the word androgynous to describe her, which I thought interesting. And the last note I have scribbled in my notebook, which I’ll leave you with, is

Ferocity in a tiny form.

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Here are Val McDermid and Christopher Hitchens on the phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy.

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As a result of this Dragon Tattoo immersion, I finally picked up the second book. And what do you know –  I have  become like a woman possessed – I can’t put the thing down! 

Stieg Larsson 1954 - 2004

4 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    Roberta, thanks for such a wonderful analysis of the Stieg Larsson phenomena and for passing along the info on the book groups. I have read all 3 of the books and was absolutely captivated. Yes, there are slow spots, but my goodness, what a ride. I think I found that the second book is the best, but you need to read book 3 to complete the multiple story arcs. I was very intrigued with the Pippi Longstocking idea. I’ll have to think about that one. My mystery group read the Dragon Tattoo last summer and everyone was swept away, even the ones who skipped the graphic violence. It’s such a shame that Larsson died before being able to complete the 10-book series that he planned. That was a true tragedy. I would love to have known what he planned after the Hornet’s Nest.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay, thanks for this. Your comments are always so thoughtful and interesting; I really appreciate your taking the time to post them.

  2. Kathy D. said,

    I, too, raced through the first two books of Larsson’s trilogy. I simply could not put them down no matter what else I had to do, like sleep.

    When asked about them, I say that Larsson is a great plotter. One gets hooked in the first two pages and then can’t stop reading.

    I thought Salander was interesting. The woman at the heart of the mystery in book one is a good character.

    I have to say that it’s tough to take some of the violence. I skip parts of it or do what I call “speedreading.” I just do not want some scenes to stay in my head.

    I don’t remember about the cat. I may have skipped it as I can’t stand violence against animals. I get the point without it.

    I don’t know what the popularity of books with so much violence, usually against women, means. I have read that publishers tell book cover designers to draw all manner of mutilated women on the covers, in order to sell books, even if the victims are men.

    I just do not understand this. Who buys books with these covers? What is the draw?
    What kind of sickness in society is this? And why is there more of this violence?

    Is this simply a substitute for a good story, character development, snappy dialogue–i.e., creativity? Or is there something more sick and sinister at work?

    Are publishers directing and asking for more violence, sickness and misogyny? Or, fi not, whom are they responding to?

    This will take lots of social, political, psychological analysts to figure this out.

    Meanwhile, I steer clear of books with a lot of violence or if I read a can’t put-down-type read, I just skip certain parts, which I’m finding is the same tactic that other women mystery readers do, too (those I speak to).

    This is a reason I quit reading Lee Child. The violence got to be too much and it’s why I steer clear of many books.

    Gosh, I want a good story. Indridasson is great without the graphic violence. Kjell Eriksson does it, too. So does Donna Leon, Sara Paretsky, so many more.

    Am I asking too much?

    Kathy D.

  3. In a race to the finish line, I finish The Girl Who Played with Fire… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] my friend Joanne presented her fascinating “double discussion” of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she referred to an article in which Stieg Larsson’s authorship of the trilogy was […]

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