The Girl Who Played with Cliches

I hated THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I thought it was a boring, cliche-ridden, bloated mess. The Lisbeth Salander character was, by far, the best thing about it…unfortunately,  the story centered primarily on Michael Blomkvist, a thinly disguised, idealized version of the author himself and the magazine he founded. It's an awful book.

Girl-who-played-with-fire  The only reason I read the sequel, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, is because so many people told me it was a much better book than TATTOO…and that it would make me understand the phenomenon. To some degree, they are right. The first third of the book is centered on Salander and her adventures abroad and back in Sweden…which actually are a lot of fun to read, if you can get past all the cliches (more on that in a minute). Salander is a great character that's stuck, unfortunately,  in two lousy novels.

The instant Michael Blomkvist returns, and even before he takes the spotlight, the book becomes overwhelmed with dull exposition (which is repeated endlessly, telling you the same facts over and over and over again), ridiculous coincidences, and pointless scenes that neither move the story forward nor reveal character. The characters become so thin that calling them "cardboard" would be giving them more substance and depth than they actually have. As if this wasn't punishment enough for the reader, the cliche-count radically increases as the book slogs on until it seems like there's one in every paragraph. Here are just a few of them:

"Nutty as a fruitcake"

"Go jump in a lake."

"he's pulling my leg."

"too many irons in the fire."

"out like a light."

"keep it under our hats."

"like a hot potato."

"you're clutching at straws."

"afraid he'd spill the beans."

"the penny dropped." 

"she's a loose cannon."

"cool as a cucumber."

"fight tooth and nail."

"kept her nose clean."

"fly in the ointment"

And so it goes, on and on, one dusty old cliche after another. By far the most used cliche in the book is "Hung out to dry/hang out to dry." It was used a dozen times before I gave up counting. I doubt these are Swedish cliches, so I blame the translator for being a lazy hack…and his editor for not doing his job.

This is a truly terrible book on just about every level. That said, it's marginally better than TATTOO by virtue of the first third.

8 thoughts on “The Girl Who Played with Cliches”

  1. I read “Dragon Tattoo” with a copy of the Swedish book open for reference — I am fluent in Swedish but don’t quite have the skills to get through a 600-page novel in the language — and wrote about the translation in this blog post. I determined that while it’s not a particularly well written book, the translation made it worse. What’s odd is that I’ve never been bothered by Murray’s translations of Henning Mankell — in fact, I think they’re very well done — so he’s certainly not a hack. It’s a little mystifying.

  2. This thoughtful review is one reason I trust your judgments implicitly and distrust the whole East Coast reviewing Establishment.

  3. I never thought I’d see the day we two agreed on something. The whole Millennium trilogy is just god-awful and I have no idea how it could get so over-hyped.
    Did you know it started out as fanfic? Larsson said he wanted to write about grown-up Kalle Blomquist and Pippi Langstrumpf (two characters from children’s books by Astrid Lindgren) and that was how he imagined them.

  4. Glad to hear there are others out there who did not succumb to the hype around this book. The way the serial killer story is book-ended by Blomqvist’s financial reporting was clumsy and anti-climactic; you never even meet the chief villain; and I never bought the idea that someone with Salander’s limited social skills could suddenly transform herself into a supremely confident and capable woman of mystery in the financial capital of Europe. Yawnenzee….

  5. David, it’s comments like yours that make me wish we’d see more, “Calling it Quits” reviews of books that were DNFs. I haven’t read this series – it’s too over-hyped for me, and I tend to avoid anything that gets to that level. Never read a Harry Potter book or anything by Dan Brown either. But because all I’ve seen, until now, is universal praise for this series, I know there are a lot of aspiring authors out there reading this and trying to imitate it because it’s been praised to the stars.
    And doesn’t that mean a whole potential cycle of substandard books in the market? Just look at all the DaVinci Code knock-offs. (I mean, at least if someone thinks my books are garbage, they’re original garbage, because I didn’t try to copy something popular.)
    Lee, I’m one of those people who believes in order for your recommendations to be taken seriously, you have to go on the record with what you don’t like, and why. I’m not in favor of the “good reviews only” policy many publications have. In fact, I think that if you had two well-read, opinionated people with opposing views on books arguing over them like Siskel and Ebert, it would generate a lot more interest in books. You should find yourself a sparring partner.
    It’s good to know some people are willing to swim against the tide and be honest with their views on books. Thanks for the post.

  6. I’m not against bad reviews as such, but one problem is with REVIEWER ENVY. Let’s say the reviewer isn’t a good writer, can’t get published, or the book sells 30 copies. But he/she WANTS publishing success. So why give a good review to somebody else? Why further somebody else’s success? Why not draw attention to himself/herself with a bad review? It’s hard, I guess, to draw attention to oneself by giving somebody else a good review.
    I imagine this is part of the logic behind the “good review only” policy.

  7. Dan, I think it’s a little different. Actually, as an aspiring author you’re more inclined to want to endear yourself to others. If I give a bad review to someone, do you think they’re going to blurb my book when it comes out? Not likely. There’s a certain amount of backscratching that goes on.
    I met someone at a convention once, years ago before I was published, who said they didn’t believe reviewers should socialize with authors at all because it clouded their judgment. As a reviewer I think you should separate the personal from the professional. Just because a book doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean I don’t like the author… the problem is, many people on the receiving end can’t make that distinction. I think it’s lead to a lack of credibility, both with blurbs and reviews, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for aspiring authors to review books unless they can be absolutely honest in their assessment of the book.
    For my reviews with the Baltimore Examiner, I actually started reviewing the first 39 pages of a book to cover more books, and to sidestep the issue of not addressing books I didn’t want to finish. You can assess writing quality, hook and characterization, possibly plot to some extent, but obviously you don’t know if the book holds up to its promise, or if it improves. I know I had one book recently that I was reading that I thought had promise at the beginning, and by 1/3 of the way through it I was bored to tears and didn’t care about the story or characters at all, so I’ll be the first to admit even reading 10-15% of a book doesn’t always give you a fair picture of its quality.


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