The Dragon Tattoo dilemma: What is good? Bad?

Stieg Larsson’s crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really an examination of moral and ethical ambiguity…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (image courtesyGoodreads)

The next novel from my 2014 reading list is the first in a trilogy (yet again with the trilogies – sheesh) that has swept to great success. The late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a solid enough crime novel, and its foreign setting, for many readers, (it’s set in Sweden, for those who don’t know) is, I’m sure, an element of allure. Add to this the familial, financial/corporate, technological, and journalistic threads that are the material of the novel’s fabric and it’s easy to understand why the novel has been a runaway bestseller.

While I have proclaimed loud and long that I am not much of a genre fan, (unless one considers classic literature a genre – which I suppose it is, though the classification would then come from its historical significance rather than its subject matter – and that, of course, then begs the question “What do we mean by ‘genre’?” – and here I’ll stop since I now begin to sound like Jacques Derrida), if pressed, I will admit to a fondness for mystery/crime fiction. Given the hoopla that’s surrounded these novels, since I’ve promised to stretch myself by reading more genre work (see my comments at the 2014 reading list link), choosing one of these books seemed an obvious decision.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a long book (the English translation clocks in at almost 650 pages). Pacing is sometimes an issue, and Larsson has an annoying tendency to offer longish explanations about various areas of Swedish life, economics, and  jurisprudence that are sometimes helpful but at other times simply drag down what was a crisp pace in the narrative. He’s not as annoying as, say, Tom Clancy or James Michener about this “need to explain,” but it does make reading the novel a chore from time to time. I am not sure if this is the translator’s or Larsson’s fault. My estimation, though, based on the regularity with which this behavior annoyed me, is that Larsson must be held accountable.

The briefest of plot synopses would be this, perhaps: an investigative journalist (Mikael Blomkvist) who has been convicted of libel – and is subsequently “out of work” (by choice) is hired by the retired scion (Henrik Vanger) of one of Sweden’s great industrial families (the Vangers) to write a family history. As it develops, the family history is a cover for his real intent: to discover what happened to a beloved niece who disappeared without a trace. Into this scenario (introduced by the scion’s investigation of Blomkvist’s background) comes a brilliant but psycho-socially damaged young woman (Lisbeth Salander) who is a highly skilled researcher – and computer hacker. Her skills meshed with those of Blomkvist solve the mystery of the missing niece, uncover dreadful family secrets, and open the way for Blomkvist to bring down the powerful Swedish financier (Hans-Erik Wennerström) who has engineered his libel conviction. There’s danger, excitement, and romance mixed into this potent concoction, of course.

If that were all there were to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it would be one of those pieces of fluff that style magazines tout in their “best beach books” reading lists. But Larsson’s novel is more than a page turner about corruption in business, mental illness and evil within a powerful family, and journalistic crusading. Larsson’s novel is in some ways, whether he means it to be or not, a meditation on how morals and ethics work in his native culture – and in a larger world linked by nearly instantaneous communication, high speed transportation, and interpersonal confusion.

Blomkvist is case in point #1. He has a failed marriage and a daughter to whom he isn’t much of a father, he has carried on a long term sexual relationship with his business partner at the magazine he writes for, and he eventually gets sexually involved with two other women in the novel (one of whom is Salander, his partner in solving the novel’s mysteries and problems). Whether Larsson aims to or not, his depiction of Blomkvist’s personal life makes Blomkvist a morally ambiguous character – and gives the reporter a humanity that readers both understand (he’s not an uncommon type of person in our world) and feel strongly about whether they approve of his personal life decisions or not. That humanizing then makes the ethical decisions he makes as a journalist more powerful because we see that he is, however messy he seems in his personal life, a person attempting to do in his professional life the ethically right things.

His struggles with the coverup of the true story of the Vanger family’s secrets is cleverly balanced against the way in which he is able to accept incriminating evidence against Wennerström gathered through Salander’s computer hacking to show that Blomkvist’s easygoing moral ambiguity may eventually cloud his ethical determinations: he seems to struggle with the decision to cover up the Vanger family secrets, yet he works doggedly to convince his business partner/paramour (Erika Berger) of the efficacy of using Salander’s information about Wennerström. Like most humans, Blomkvist’s moral and ethical judgments seem to be based on a sliding scale of practicality. The members of the Vanger family responsible for the evil done are dead, so publicizing their wrong doing can only hurt the innocent, it would seem. Wennerström’s financial frauds serve greater evils such as arms merchants, so his evil must be exposed and destroyed – as must he be. That Blomkvist struggles with not publicizing the Vanger criminals says something good about his professional ethics; that he fails to see – or, worse, possibly ignores – Salander’s deep feelings for him says something not so good about his personal morals.

Salander is, certainly, case in point #2. Her personal morals are fairly primitive, based largely on the mysterious “bad thing” that happened to her (it would seem in her early teens, though it could be younger). Whatever this “bad thing” was, it has made her wary of people, particularly men. To see Blomkvist through Salander’s eyes is to see his best qualities – his gentleness, his acceptance of difference, his sincere desire to expose wrongdoing. In Salander’s “kill or be killed” weltanschauung, ethics are often an impractical commodity. Not only does she hack Wennerström’s computer and give Blomkvist the material he needs to bring the financial fraudster down, she also uses her skills as a hacker (and actress) to steal the secret stash of money Wennerström has hidden in an offshore account for herself. The extremely personal pragmatism of Salander’s ethical and moral judgments puts Blomkvist’s to shame. Her system is binary: if a person or system hurts her, it is evil and must be fought, destroyed if possible. If it causes her no harm, it can be allowed to coexist. The complication comes for her when she develops real romantic feeling for her partner Blomkvist; that attachment lays her open to feeling emotions – and emotional pain – something she has managed to put at bay in almost all of her human interactions. At the end of the novel she is faced with deciding whether to engage in the human world of love and relationships because of (perhaps due to would be the more correct usage choice since she sees this as negative) Blomkvist. And she suffers the distress of feeling that he has let her down. Salander’s dilemma becomes then the dilemma of deciding whether to confront Blomkvist about his actions which have caused her emotional duress or whether to try to force her relationship to him to be simply professional. His morals have caused her pain, but she admires his ethics.

This conflict sets the stage for the next novel in the trilogy (because, after all, we need at least two more books to work all this out, right?). This interesting conflict of personal morals and professional ethics, though, gives The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a depth that makes looking for the next novel in this series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, worth consideration. That sort of moral and ethical complexity is welcome in any sort of literature; in mystery/crime fiction, it is especially so.