The Girl Who Played with Fire
by Stieg Larsson
It feels like a ridiculous cliché to call Stieg Larsson's premature death a tragedy--no matter how true it is. But now, as I am still breathless having finished the second novel of his dazzling Millennium Trilogy, I truly believe this man has achieved immortality. I can easily imagine his creation Lisbeth Salander joining the ranks of the most enduring literary characters. Once you've met Lisbeth, you'll never forget her.
The Girl Who Played With Fire opens quite provocatively, with an unknown 13-year-old girl being held captive by a sexual predator. Whatever ideas you form at that point--you're wrong. Trust me, you are. From there, we have some one-on-one time with Lisbeth. She's been busy since we last saw her, getting a personal makeover and taking some time to see the world. She's been away from Sweden for about a year, and it's time for her to return home. She left without a word to anyone, and she cautiously begins making contact with the people who care about her, with the notable exception of Mikael Blomkvist. Much to his consternation, she wants nothing to do with him, and has refused all contact.
That's okay. Mikael's busy running Millennium magazine and jumping in and out of affairs. And, as it happens, a huge story has just walked into Millennium's office in the form of Dag Svensson. Dag's a young journalist who has been researching sex trafficking in Sweden for years. He's written an explosive book, and he wants Millennium to publish it. They decide not only to take the book, but to build an entire issue of the magazine around it. The question is, how far is someone willing to go to keep a crime quiet?
As an American, I've always had a very positive opinion of the Scandinavian peoples. They always seemed "better" than us, more enlightened somehow. Let me tell you, Stieg Larsson has disavowed me of that notion. The Swedes are just as unpleasant as we are. God, maybe worse! Reading this book, written by a native, is a fascinating glimpse at a culture in many ways quite different from our own. Regardless, it seems that people are people and there's a lot of ignorance, hatred, violence, venality, and sickness in the world.
Others will write more about the plot, but I see no reason to go there. I read this novel without knowing what to expect, and the reading experience was the more enjoyable for it. There were some BIG surprises. That said, the plot was the most flawed part of a luminous novel. On the one had, I absolutely loved it. On the other, Stieg Larsson cheated--not once, but twice! Deep into the middle of the novel, a major plot point revolves around a coincidence. That's not cool. I had a conflicted internal debate, and had just about decided to let Larsson have a pass on at least a semi-plausible coincidence when he did it again! A second major plot point based on a coincidence. That's bad. I was so disgusted at that point that I put the book down for a day. But, I have to admit that when I picked it back up, the story moved along at such a headlong pace that I could hardly bare to set it down again. Seriously, I went without food. Ultimately, it's an amazing story being told, but very flawed from a technical standpoint. As much as I want to, I just can't give it five stars.
Now, what aren't flawed are Larsson's characterizations, and that's what elevates this novel from being one hell of a good mystery to a work of far greater significance. And as I alluded earlier, it is Lisbeth Salander that is his showstopper. I've never met anyone like her. You've never met anyone like her. She's one of a kind; a damaged genius who will break your heart while pissing you off. Lisbeth's past had only been hinted at in Dragon. We learn a lot more about her in Fire. Happily, I feel confident there is still much to unravel in Hornet's Nest. The ending of this novel will leave you deeply impatient to get your hands on the final installment, and fearful of how that one will end.