The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Shane's book 24, 2009)

I'd read so many good things about this novel - in the press and from otherwise respectable people on Twitter - that I thought I'd give it a try. Unfortunately this Swedish murder mystery is terrible. It's badly written, it's poorly structured and, worse than either of those, it's dull.

Larsson was a left-wing journalist who originally set out to write a series of ten murder mysteries. He died after completing just three. The parallels with Sjowall and Wahloo are obvious but while the Martin Beck series relishes the banality of police work and yet remains compelling, Larsson's debut is sensationalist and action-packed but thoroughly boring. Where Sjowall and Wahloo are playful and subtle, Larsson is po-faced and blunt.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) has three sections. In the first, Mikael Blomkvist, a principled, crusading financial reporter at Millennium magazine, is disgraced when he loses a libel action to a wealthy industrialist, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom.

[amtap book:isbn=1847245455]

In the second section Blomkvist is approached by Henrik Vanger, another wealthy industrialist whose grand-niece, Harriet, disappeared 40 years earlier. Vanger, convinced Harriet was murdered, asks Blomkvist to solve the mystery, under the guise of writing a biography of the Vanger family.

In the final section, Blomkvist gets his revenge on Wennerstrom and saves Millennium magazine for another sequel. Throughout all this Blomkvist is aided by Lisbeth Salander, a dysfunctional punk and hacker who gives the book its title. Salander is anti-social and lives life on the margins but, like seemingly every other woman in the novel is unable to resist the lure of the middle-aged and charmless Blomkvist.

There aren't many plot holes but the structure is slack and the book could easily lose 100 pages or more without consequence.

The first section of the book is quite promising, despite Larsson's clumsy labouring of the point that violence against women is a bad thing. That's hardly the most penetrating observation but nevertheless Larsson begins each chapter with some worthy statistics. One, claiming that 18 per cent of Swedish women have at some time been threatened by a man is followed later by news that 46 per cent of Swedish women have been subjected to violence by a man. Both alarming stats, to be sure, but how is it possible for more women to be actually assaulted than threatened?

The middle section is like a different novel, and a really, really bad one. Larsson piles one serial killer thriller cliche onto another as Blomkvist investigates Harriet's disappearance.

[Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers...]

He uncovers a serial killer guided by the Book of Leviticus who trains his son to be a serial killer too. While the father is a slavering maniac, the son becomes one of those ice-cold evil genius serial killers who has a torture room in his basement and disposes of his victims at sea to ensure they'll never be found.

While this sort of thing might cause Thomas Harris to wake up stuck to the sheets, to me it just sounds laughably daft. If it was mooted as an ITV weeknight thriller, even Robson Greene would consider it beneath him.

Moreover, this kind of schlock writing gives the impression that Larsson's message about violence against women is there simply to lend legitimacy to the very silly plot. First, in the real world most women are abused by husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers rather than by cackling serial killers. Second, the victims in this book are all anonymous and interchangeable. The empathy created by Sjowall and Wahloo in Roseanna or by Bolano in 2666 is entirely missing here.

It's a woefully shallow piece of work. Larsson's dialogue is wooden and his characters are underdeveloped. Only Salander is fully realised and, to me at least, she seems like a cartoon or video game character who has wound up in a novel by mistake. Her presence just makes the story more implausible.

In that context, Larsson's constant parade of statistics begins to make sense. He doesn't have the skill as a novelist to make his point through the story so he needs stats to do it for him instead.

There is some truly awful writing in places too. In one scene Salander's mother watches "sadly and anxiously" as her daughter leaves. Larsson ends the scene with the wretched: "It was as if she had a premonition of some approaching disaster."

Overall though, Larsson is simply lazy. The third and final section of the book is mostly just a list of events recounted in emails. It feels like the writer just can't wait to get finished.

I can't say I blame him. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is terrible; the worst book I've read all year.