The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson has been on the receiving end of some serious press lately. For the most part this coincides with the release of the much-anticipated film noir adaptation starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, but this post will deal exclusively with the noir crime fiction. I’m one of those geeks that everyone despises because I refuse to see a film before I’ve read the book (as if doing so would burgle my imagination of something delicious). Thus I’m going to give the novel the full review treatment while avoiding all possible spoilers (especially the big ones).
Simple stated, the story revolves around the unsolved disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the niece of a powerful industrialist. Mikael Blomkvist is given unlimited access to all records surrounding the case as well as incentive to discover the truth.
As is my custom, I’ll be looking at this noir crime fiction in light of the ten aspects of my pre-constructed noir definition:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The majority of this thriller takes place in scenic Hedestad, a small island outside of Stockholm. Very few of the locations described within the text have the “seedy” quality which one would expect; as a result nearly every wicked scenario is even more dubious because the villainy is hidden beneath a veneer of normalcy.
2) The Anti-Hero
Our anti-hero is Mikael Blomkvist, a mid-aged financial journalist with a penchant for moral causes and the courage to voice them. He is an attractive, level-headed man who has many loyal friends and old enemies. He makes a gambit at the head of the biggest corporation in Sweden, Wennerstrom, and fails to prove suspected corruption. This leaves him dejected, hollow, and furious and simultaneously opens a door to the biggest/strangest opportunity of his life. He is an ideal anti-hero because he has nothing to lose and everything to prove, and his self-worth has been shaken to the core by his failings.
3) The Femme Fatale
Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed chopstick of a woman who is always a hairsbreadth from violence is the femme fatale. She is young, odd, socially defunct, and an absolute genius. Throughout the course of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she dishes as well as receives a great deal of violence, both sexual and non-sexual and none of it is easy to digest. She represents every woman who has ever been the victim of extortion and sexual abuse, and she shatters the shackles and norms associated with this blight through cruel vengeance. She is one of the most powerful femme fatale characters that I’ve ever read. Instead of being male defined, she is completely outside of their framework; essentially a male’s worst nightmare. She is an angel of vengeance.
While a frightening amount of misogyny exists in the novel, Mikael Blomkvist is wonderfully free of this ill. If even half of the statistics that Stieg Larsson quotes are true, then every woman in Sweden needs to get the hell out of dodge ASAP. They are seen as sexual objects that need plundering, and that a male’s power is only a means of funneling women to his libido.
“Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship”
Blomkvist is driven by the insatiable urge to redeem himself from his failed attack on Wennerstrom. This urge is what ultimately chains him in the service of Henrik Vanger on Hedestad, working to solve a mystery 40 years in the making. Although Blomkvist is not the only individual who craves redemption, nearly every main character desires the same.
A hefty amount of eroticism exists in this noir crime fiction. Sexual torture based on bondage and S&M practices is a permeating theme in the book, and is balanced by an obvious presence of seduction and casual (though respectful) sex. Additionally there are bisexual encounters, rape, incest, and molestation present as well. The reason for such strong sexual themes in this novel is clearly the critique of the current climate of sexual violence and abuse in Sweden. The book is a harrowing look at hidden behaviors beneath the surface of clean streets and modern homes. This approach as an author of a crime fiction reeks of James Cain; the more bizarre and unacceptable the behavior, the more intriguing the book.
“Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”
7) The Loss of Innocence
Possibly the most permeating consequence in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the loss of innocence that accompanies sexual abuse. One scene in particular is the molten core of the entire novel, and it ignites an uncomfortable sizzle from cover to cover. Scarring invariably occurs as a result of this scene, both in the lives of the characters and in the mind of the reader. It won’t be comfortable, but you’ll be changed by it.
8 ) Racism
A surprising amount of Nazism is present in the novel as well as ‘Aryan’ themes. Antisemitism is peppered throughout.
Blomkvist is hopelessly trying to quit smoking from the first chapter to the end. It represents a chink in his armor of self control, and dismisses his the illusions of his ability to cope.
Henrik Vanger seems to represent the greatest sufferer of emasculation within The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. His failure to solve the mystery of his niece’s murder for 40 years is the ultimate stroke of impotence in his otherwise successful life. This failure pervades all aspects of his existence, first derailing his business and eventually his health. He’s consumed by his inadequacy, and he takes on responsibility for her demise as if he himself dealt the final blow. He cannot surrender to the unknown and fears that he will die without knowing what happened. He believes that the knowledge will set him free and restore what manhood has been stolen from him.
A methodical thriller, an intellectual masterpiece, and a frightening social commentary, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a superb example of a modern noir crime fiction.
Here are some images promoting the film noir adaptation:
7 responses to “Noir Crime Fiction | The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson”
Man, this seems like a tough read! I liked the connection you made with Lisbeth and the femme fatale. It saddens me to hear the percentage of women who have been victims of sexual assault in Sweden. It seems like this book sheds some light on the problem.
i don’t want to shatter someone’s dream, but the book doesn’t shed any light on that problem. one hand would be enough to count scenes where it does.
it has what? five hundred pages? and half of them is description of bad-asses stealing state money and Blookmkvist’s breakfasts.. when i was reading it, i had to sometimes force myself to continue, because, you know, it’s best-seller, it should be good. but it isn’t.
haven’t seen Fincher’s movie yet, but like a lot swedish adaptation http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1132620/ . it was shorter, darker and it skipped all the boring stuff.
I don’t think that the books efficiency at exposing sexual abuse can be accurately quantified by a page count. It doesn’t matter how long the sexual assault scenes are, it matters that they’re there.
I will agree that the novel is slow. It’s methodical story telling, and I didn’t feel suspense until the neighborhood of page 450.
Thanks for both your comments.
Hello, I couldn’t help but notice your misuse of the word “blaxploitation.” When it was created, it was used to ‘appeal’ to blacks, not used as racist against them–although it was, in a sense, stereotypical. Shaft is an example of a blaxploitation movie as it targets a black audience using references and music that would attract/interest them.
Just thought I’d raise that point. Noir is a very hard genre to define, so It’s always possible to get confused. I liked your review nonetheless.
Thank Justin. You’re absolutely right, thanks for improving NoirWhale.com. Keep coming back.
Thank you for replying. I do plan to continue visiting this site. If you’re interested, some things that I’ve found helpful regarding how to define the Noir genre are Otto Penzler’s article featured on the Huffington post entitled “Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes” which can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/otto-penzler/noir-fiction-is-about-los_b_676200.html
And–you probably already know this–but in the essay section of criminal: the deluxe edition, Ed Brubaker states: “Noir is showing us a fractured world full of damaged people, who nonetheless try to survive, but who mostly fail.” I’ve always remembered that and have continued to use it as a reference.
There have also been several non-fiction books that investigate the genre such as “The Street Was Mine” by Megan Abbott.
Personally, I have studied noir for many years and have yet to find a definite definition of the genre. It makes me happy to know that there are people like you who are dedicated to doing so.
Take care, and happy blogging.
Thanks for the wealth of resources to study! I’ve updated my definition thanks to your input. Thank you again for caring enough to comment. -Chad