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Keith Madsen

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The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo -- Great writing, So-So Form
by Keith Madsen   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, April 15, 2011
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011

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A review of "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" by Steig Larson, with some thoughts on what makes good writing good.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson is one of the more popular mysteries out there on the market today, and having just finished it, I believe the popularity is deserved. I am not normally a big devotee of mysteries, but I like good stories and this is a good story. It is a multilayer mystery which (after a somewhat slow beginning) keeps you turning the pages to find out more. Was the young teenager Harriet really murdered, and if so, who did it? But then (layer 2) what about the old man who wants to reopen this murder mystery 40 years later? Is he really as crazy as some people think, and why is the family he is part of so dysfunctional? And then there is (layer 3) "the girl with the dragon tattoo" herself -- an investigator who reminds me of an even kinkier version of Kalinda on The Good Wife. What drives her, and what are the life traumas she is so desperately trying to hide?

As a writer of fiction, I wrestled a bit with what made this book good. It wasn't necessarily the quality of the writing -- at least not from a technical point of view. The author frequently uses passive voice. I noted a number of occasions where he used awkward sentence structure, and he frequently jumped from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another within the same scene. Some of this might have been because of translation issues or because Steig Larson died soon after submitting the manuscript, thus cutting short needed editing.

Whatever the case, I liked the book, and I know from the book's sales that I am not alone. I think this is because sometimes the technical aspects of writing are sometimes emphasized (at least in writer's conferences and writing groups) more than some more important features of a book. I am not saying that the technical aspects of writing are unimportant (I was bothered a little by these problems in this novel myself). But I would say that there are more important issues which need to take precedence. These are:

INTRIGUING CHARACTERS -- An interesting story requires interesting characters. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has them. Most interesting of all is Lizbeth Salander, a girl who has been categorized by the court system as troubled and in need of supervision, but who as it turns out is an idealist with super investigative skills, and who is the strong female lead much in demand by female readers. Members of the dysfunctional Vanger family are also intriguing, especially Henrietta (mostly described in flashback and report), whose character is laced with mystery.

LIKEABLE CHARACTERS -- Personally, I quickly tire of even a colorful character if they are so unlikeable that I start to HOPE someone murders them so I don't have to read about them any more! Steig Larson created characters that I wanted to get to know.

A TRUE TO LIFE PLOT -- I don't care for stories that are improvised to fit the author's distorted worldview. I like to feel this really could happen!

A STORY THAT MATTERS -- Steig Larson's story has to do with family dysfunction, sexual abuse and sociopathic behavior, all of which need more light shed on them. I lose interest when the only issue is, will the hot, privileged young woman and the hot, privileged young man get together in the end? Snore.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" did have its shortcomings. I mentioned the writing style. I also was somewhat disappointed with the ending (I don't need happy endings, but I do prefer appropriately hopeful endings.) Still, it was a book that for me was well worth reading

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