When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was touted as an international phenomenon on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, I knew that I could no longer avoid it and would eventually give in to the phenomenon. I had the book within a matter of days. I’ve been an avid reader of mysteries and suspense novels from the time I was weaned on Nancy Drew in my girlhood to when I graduated to Agatha Christie and other adult crime novelists. All I knew about the Stieg Larsson novel was that it is a mystery and it is set in Sweden. Both are pluses in my book, so I thought I would relish the experience. Even now, a week after I finished the novel, I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.
After finishing the book, I read the EW feature article and accompanying sidebars, and one in particular caught my eye. Missy Schwartz aptly summed up the failings of the novel. SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any further if you don’t wish to be spoiled on major plots points from the book. The book largely concerns itself with violence against women. Each section opens with a handy little fact about violence against women in Sweden, such as “Forty-six percent of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man” (127). Also, the original title in Swedish translates to Men Who Hate Women (Seriously, check out the EW article; it’s filled with fun facts like this). Clearly we’re going for a theme here.
But as Schwartz points out while Larsson seems to be trying to draw attention to the prevalence of violence against women (by showing it in minute, grotesque detail), he’s also using it to titillate in his story. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started reading. One minute I’m enjoying a slowly unfolding mystery, and the next, I’m reading Swedish sexcapades and sadism. I get that the book is dark and edgy, but must all the violence against women be shown in torturous minutiae? Each instance is more shocking than the last. Maybe Larsson is subscribing to that old writing maxim of “show, not tell?”
Most of the women solve their violence problems by escaping and leaving the situation. Almost no one speaks up about it. It’s like an unwritten rule. Liz Salander, Larsson’s heroine, on the other hand, actively decides against telling the authorities as well as decides against viewing herself as the victim. Instead she confronts, physically subdues and then blackmails her sexual abuser. Is this active and physical resistance the message Larsson is trying to send?
Let’s also look at the characterization of Liz. She’s a strong, complicated, dark character. She’s antisocial and antiestablishment (Probably for a good reason. It’s hinted at, but I haven’t read the other two books, so I don’t really know). She doesn’t label herself as bisexual, more just sexual. However, As Schwartz points out, she has body image issues and only feels better about herself after having a boob enhancement. Furthermore, she falls in love with the male protagonist, Mikhael Blomkvist. (But let’s be realistic, who in this novel doesn’t want him?) Erica Berger, another strong female character in the book and editor-in-chief of her own magazine, also has relationship with Blomkvist.
It sort-of reads like a male’s fantasy—females all find the male lead sexually desirable, women are sexually exploited and abused. The only thing that keeps this novel from slipping into the realm of entirely exploitive is that all the men who perpetrate violence against women ultimately meet their come-uppance, and several other male characters condemn it.
However, the prevalence of violence against women in this novel got me thinking about women in the suspense/mystery genre in general. Damsel in distress is a common phrase for a reason. And noir mysteries often feature the Girl Friday, the ingénue or the femme fatale. The genre is rife with stereotypes, and violence against women is a common feature. For example, in one of my favorite mystery novels, the classic Laura by Vera Caspary, the mystery hinges on a woman who has been killed by a shotgun blast to the face, which leaves her so disfigured that it’s difficult to identify her.
Although I like that the mystery/suspense requires you to think (to employ the little grey cells as Hercule Poirot would say) and half the fun comes from trying to solve the puzzle, it’s sad that women often bear the brunt of the violence. Maybe that’s why I liked Nancy Drew initially; she was a girl who not only caught the criminal but also saved herself.
–by Lindsay Ray