I found it difficult at first to write about The Girl Who Played with Fire, as it still echoed in my head. I felt that no matter what I wrote, it would never do the novel justice. I could save a lot of space by simply writing Wow! But that wouldn’t really tell you much. So with this English-translated novel’s introduction rapidly approaching, I want to explore why the follow-up to Dragon Tattoo sent me reeling.
Firstly, let me recall how captivated I was by reading Larsson’s prose in the initial series installment. Dragon Tattoo rocked my world so, that I overlooked a few of its shortcomings, including a lengthy introduction that was heavy on business politics, some of the clunkier aspects of the story’s English translation, and the immense scope of its narrative, which at times detracted from its pacing. Also, I found some of the sexual violence in Larsson’s debut novel disturbing. Thankfully, though, none of those shortcomings are evident in The Girl Who Played with Fire. I can say quite confidently that this second book is one of the greatest works of fiction, not just crime fiction.
In talking about Volume II of the Millennium Trilogy, I don’t want to ruin things for readers who haven’t yet enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; you really need to take that first book in hand, as it sets up the action and the dynamics Larsson further explores in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The trouble is, much of the first novel’s back-story permeates into Volume II. And there are secrets revealed here that place protagonist Lisbeth Salander--introduced in the previous book as the 24-year-old partner of disgraced journalist and publisher Mikael Blomkvist--under a new light, some of which even she does not realize exist. Those secrets will make both Salander and the reader re-examine what they think they know so far and question everything that follows.
Played with Fire opens with a disturbing prologue that makes one apprehensive about what might follow. An unnamed 13-year-old girl finds herself fastened to a steel-frame bed by leather straps. She has been trapped by someone with evil intent, someone harboring the darkest of intentions. One naturally wonders whether that unnamed girl is a younger Lisbeth Salander, but the answer to that mystery will not be revealed until much else has happened.
Soon enough, the grown-up Salander makes her entrance into this tale in grand style, visiting tropical Grenada on a well-deserved vacation. After the conclusion of Dragon Tattoo, Salander “inherited” a vast sum of money, so she’s decided to see something of the world. Distanced from her love interest, and feeling pangs of jealousy as a result of Blomkvist’s carnal nature and his relationship with a business associate, the misfit Salander cuts herself off. While exploring Grenada, she engages in a relationship with a local youth, one George Bland. But danger approaches, thanks to a tornado called Matilda. During the storm, Salander encounters other threats, this time in the forms of a woman named Geraldine Forbes and her husband, Richard. It will demand all of our heroine’s moral outrage to restore order amidst the tornado. When she moves into action, she’s not one to take any prisoners, believe me.
Having survived that disaster, a relieved Salander returns to Sweden and resumes a physical relationship with an old girlfriend, Miriam “Mimmi” Wu, even giving her lover the keys to her flat. However, like Batman or Superman, Salander has her own secret retreat, an expensive flat registered under one of her secret identities. Being Salander, she has enemies, the most dangerous of whom is the sexual sadist and lawyer Nils Erik Bjurman. He’s her legal guardian--the same man who sexually abused her long ago, and upon whom Salander later inflicted a brutal revenge. Bjurman now schemes to kill Salander, for his every waking hour is still haunted by memories of what she did to him.
Meanwhile, back at Millennium magazine, Mikael Blomkvist is puzzled by Salander having vanished and her refusal to return his calls. His latest lover, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Erika Berger, also has a dilemma. Despite being very fond of her role at Millennium, she has been offered the career opportunity of a lifetime--a senior role with one of Sweden’s most prestigious media companies. She keeps this offer a secret from Blomkvist, though; in fact, all of the characters in Larsson’s narrative have hidden motivations and secrets they carry around with them, for which there will be consequences.
Blomkvist plans to publish a special edition of his magazine to coincide with a book being written, one that exposes the illicit business of people-trafficking and the damaged women who find themselves sucked into that soul-destroying world. Blomkvist hires freelance journalists and partners Mia Johansson and Dag Svensson to pen the piece from their upcoming book. Blomkvist knows that their exposé will destroy some senior people in Swedish society, but being every inch the moral crusader, he can’t see beyond his wish to shed light on the hypocrisy such people exhibit.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, when Johansson and Svensson are found murdered, and the description given of their fleeing assailant matches Lisbeth Salander to a T. From there, we’re offered a multifarious web of dark doings that seem to originate with, or at least relate to, Salander and her strange behavior, which is in turn linked to her passion for complex mathematics. Her continual reading of Dimension in Mathematics, by L.C. Parnault, may shed light on her affliction with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, but it could also suggest something far more complicated.
To investigate this case, the Swedish police assign a motley bunch of oddballs headed by the wonderfully crafted Inspector Jan Bublanski (known behind his back as “Officer Bubble”). As the hunt for Salander goes nationwide, they become interested in her relationship with Blomkvist. But Salander is not a woman to be messed with; between bites of Billy’s Pan Pizza, she fights to clear her name, and at the same time prevent Miriam Wu from becoming embroiled in the fallout from the murders of Blomkvist’s two freelancers. In the course of it all, Salander contacts her old boss, Dragan Armansky of Milton Security. He tells her that her former guardian, Holger Palmgren, is recovering from a serious stroke. Prior to being taken on by the vile lawyer Bjurman, Salander’s guardian had been the kindly Palmgren, and from her encounters and investigations we soon learn a great deal about how she became the misfit she is today. It seems that Salander has a twin sister, Camilla, who, after what is enigmatically described as “all that evil,” was sent to a foster home, while Salander was committed to St. Stefan’s Psychiatric Hospital for Children. To reveal more would be wrong of me, but suffice it to say, the revelations are scary, and they give the reader ample understanding of malevolent people--the type who lack compassion and crave only the satisfaction of their dark desires, no matter how much hurt their inflict on the most vulnerable around them.
As The Girl Who Played with Fire gathers pace in the last third of its pages, we learn about a gangster known as Zala and his henchmen, the Ranta Brothers, as well as a walking giant named Niederman, who chomps steroids as regularly as he cracks bones. Finally, as Miriam Wu is placed in mortal danger, it’s up to Salander--with some help from a politician and ex-wrestling champion--to the rescue.
Notice how many weird characters make appearances in this book and how I refer to them as if they were real people? That’s because Larsson’s sophomore novel pulses with life, as well as death. It’s not overstating the case to say that, at times I was hypnotized by the author’s writing style and the people he chooses to fill his narrative. As odd as it may sound, some of the players in these pages are far better delineated than the folks populating my reality.
The novel’s conclusion is truly shocking, as we learn about the corruption that led to the incarceration of that young girl I mentioned before, and the reasons why Lisbeth Salander became such an outcast from society. We also discover more about the nefarious attorney Bjurman, but most frighteningly, we learn who Zala really is. By the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, I found myself practically tearing through the pages, as if hidden in the story were something as important as the secret to eternity. I’ve fallen so deeply in love with Stieg Larsson’s characters, that reading about their world seems far more true than what I see around me in these weird economic times.
I warn you, this story is not pretty. Not in the least. But it does pulse with insight and compassion, and it will haunt you for many weeks after you’ve put it down. If I read a finer book this year than The Girl Who Played with Fire, I shall consider myself extraordinarily lucky. American fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have a hard time waiting until the U.S. edition of Played with Fire comes out from Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi in July. If you would like a taste of what’s to come, click here.
* * *To help celebrate the British release next week of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, Quercus’s publicity director, Lucy Ramsey, is offering three free copies to Rap Sheet readers. To enter the contest for one, just answer this question:
What is the first name of Stieg Larsson’s niece, on whom Lisabeth Salander is partly based?(If you need a clue, click here.)
Send your response, including your name and mailing address, to email@example.com. And in the subject line, write “Larsson Competition.”
The closing date for entries is next Thursday, January 8. The names of three people who answered the above question correctly will then be pulled out of a hat, and copies sent to all of them.