*NOTE:I'M IN FORMATTING HELL: single-space, double-space, weird space! Good luck.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Like the first book (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), it is powerful, compelling, and suspenseful, with intriguing characters, and a world-view unusual in the long literary history of detectives vs crime. Larsson’s criminals don’t so much threaten the social order as represent its ugly persona. Yes, of course, there is the scum of profiteers and thugs, sadistic hoodlums for hire, the familiar underworld of drug pushers, pimps, creeps and bullies. But Larsson's books reflect what he had investigated and worked to expose as a journalist: the Swedish Extreme Right where misogyny, racism, and fascism fester together, a world very far from being subordinate or lower class. In this book, he targets the cancerous undermining of democracy by careerists and self-appointed "guardians of the free world'' within government and public institutions.
Above all, his books are vitally feminist in their depiction of female resilience, intelligence and courage, as well as in their uncompromising attacks on misogyny in all its forms, from savage physical abuse to contempt for women at all levels. The feminist pulse would surprise you if you merely look at the titles. All this stuff about "The Girl"? In Swedish, however, Larsson called the first book Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. (See a perceptive article in New Statesman about the English titles as a paradigm for misogynistic exploitation: Laurie Penny, "Girls, Tattoos and Men Who Hate Women," 9/5/2010.) The Swedish title of this second book (Flickan som lekte med elden) is the only one of the trilogy legitimately translated as The Girl, for this book refers to Lisbeth Salander's childhood, especially the period after an attempt to kill her abusive father with a crude fire bomb when she was twelve years old. This becomes only one way she will "play with fire" throughout this novel. It explains her status as a ward of the state, labelled violent and unstable, and sets the scene for finding out why all records have disappeared that concern the abusive father, the attack, and her court-remanded institutionalization in a children's psychiatric hospital. Salander's father survived the attack, and readers will meet him in this installment of the long story broken into three books. The Swedish title of the third book, by the way, does not repeat "the girl" trope, and makes the English title is even more strained and irrelevant as a marketing ploy, as "The Girl" suggests, at least to one critic, an 'alluring waif' (see my last paragraph below) with an immaturity which can be sold as a hint at eroticism.
When twelve-year-old Salander was hospitalized, she was subjected to treatment that might have broken even an adult: strapped immobile to a bed in a dark room alone—what was euphemistically called a "stimulus-free room"--the purpose of which was ostensibly to calm a child who was excessively violence-prone. The Prologue begins with these words:
She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a
steel frame. The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were
manacled to the sides of the bed. She had long since given up trying to
free herself. She was awake, but her eyes were closed. If she opened her
eyes she would find herself in darkness.
Toward the end of the page we read, "It was her forty-third day of imprisonment."
The Prologue concludes: "It was her thirteenth birthday." From then on, she refers to this period of her life only as the time of "All the Evil."
Two characters who I wanted to know better figure briefly in the preliminary stages of the plot. They have collected evidence that sets the scene for main drama of the book. The couple--journalist Dag Svensson and PhD student/ criminologist Mia Johansson--have prepared an expose of sex trafficking in Sweden which Millennium, the news magazine of Blomkvist and his editorial partner Erika Berger, plans to publish. Larsson himself, by the way, published a similar real journal, Expo, which may account for the importance of publishing in the series. When the couple are murdered, Lisbeth Salander is named as the suspect and a danger to the public. Blomkvist and the team on his investigative journal work both to exculpate Salander and to find the real killer/s.
I don't think it's giving anything away to say that Lisbeth Salander ends up being wanted by the police and made notorious in the media. Even those with most faith in her are troubled by the evidence. A police team assembled to catch her plays a major role in the novel. Two "good cops," including a woman whose patience is severely tested by macho prejudice, try to make sure Salander won't be killed as a dangerous public enemy before being captured. Two men on the team—one a macho sourpuss, and the other someone with an axe to grind —threaten and bully women named as Salander's associates and undermine the investigation. An ambitious prosecutor trying to promote his career misdirects the investigation, thinking that he is working with sensitive government security agents. Dragan Armansky, her former employer, allies with Blomkvist in efforts to exonerate Lisbeth, and even her stroke-damaged former guardian and friend Holger Palmgren comes back into the picture. Her former hacker friend Plague helps Salander with a virtual raid on all relevant computers including that of the chief prosecutor.
The book's core crime mystery, however, is deeper, more complex and far-reaching than even this book alone can really work out; consequently, The Girl Who Played With Fire is not a very satisfactory stand-alone novel. It is so utterly dependent on the next book for resolution that it invites speculation about the motivation for making the plot stretch over two books.
The plot is complex, true, much more so it seems than that of the first book. For one thing, we are halfway through the book before the double murder occurs. When it begins, a year has passed since Salander left Sweden to secure and spend her windfall from stealing the fortune of the crooked financier Wennerstrom, and to forget her disappointment in Blomkvist. She is on Grenada, has travelled around the world, is fascinated with mathematics, is working on Fermat's unsolved Theorem proof, has a teen-aged boy as lover and friend, and kills an abusive husband in a hurricane. Whew! She finally returns to Stockholm, with no intention of ever seeing or speaking to Mikael Blomkvist who she has renamed in her mind Kalle F*ing Blomkvist. No wonder it takes half a book to get to the climactic turning point at which the fates of Blomkvist and Salander once more come together. In retrospect, I wondered if her ex-pat adventures were partly "filler," either because Larsson planned a trilogy from the beginning, or the mystery material that carries over to the third book was too unwieldy to deal with in one volume.
I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the first one. Part of my delight in the first book was the thrill of discovering an exciting book with a world-view like mine. One of my reading problems, I confess, is that when all of the characters are referred to by their last names, I lost track frequently of who was who: Svensson, Erikssen, Sandstrom, Johansson, Berger, Bjurman, ...and that doesn't even touch the police and multiple other characters. There were fewer characters in the first book. Moreover, the fact that I don't have even a reasonable grasp of Swedish geography means that I didn't know where people were unless it was just "Stockholm." "After Nykvarn he had gone to Lundin's house in Svavelsjo, only a hundred yards ...he told Lundin to get himself to Stallarholmen as fast as he could and start another fire." What???
This is certainly no criticism of the book, just a reading obstacle. Sometimes I would get partway through a segment and realize that I was imagining the wrong characters in the wrong place. And the street names: "Bjorneborgsvagen!" "Annika was silent as she turned down the Hammarby industrial road and passed Sickla lock. She wound her way down side streets parallel to Nynasvagen until she could turn up Enskedevagen."
Larsson creates some nightmarish characters here: a maimed but still dangerous former Russian hitman and a 'blond giant' (and having just read 2666 I'm wondering about the coincidentally duplicated giant scary blond character). Blomkvist turns up evidence of a much bigger crime than the double murder while pursuing his thesis that the real murderer of Svensson and Johansson would be somehow linked with human trafficking, and that the couple was killed to protect someone's identity. A mystery name keeps coming up that will eventually link that murder to a massive conspiracy and cover-up within the government as well as disclosing enemies who threaten Salander's life even outside of the police investigation. Of course she threatens right back: half the excitement of this book is her irrepressible instinct to fight back. Her self-defense cannot be faulted, and I think this is the first book I ever read in which someone convincingly returns from the grave.
I love Stieg Larsson. I lament that he did not write more and more often or survive. Fifty years old! Not fair. So-o-o many others I would love to have seen go in his place.
Now, some only indirectly related kvetching! I am simmering a little—well, all right, I'm seething—because just before I finally found time to read this (after having loved Book One, as well as its American film version with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig) I was browsing through an edition of New York Review of Books in which a male writer offered to explain why Fifty Shades of Grey has had such popularity. He also referred to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And—let me be brief—he explains that we all really love pornography and books like Larsson's and Fifty Shades "pretend" that we are reading the book for other more prudish reasons. Christopher Hitchens also calls Salander an alluring waif (or something like that, Vanity Fair). And suggests that the brutality against women portrayed in Larsson's books is created as sub rosa pornography-- you know, those dirty Swedes. Sometimes my brain just wants to lie down and give up when it discovers such intransigeant prejudices. If you write about rape or about beating up a woman or killing a woman, you are writing something to be enjoyed as pornography??? Of course, in 2013, "Radio Lab," (NPR) aired a program touting a method which two (white male middle-class American) psychological professionals proposed for finding out if a person lies: "Ask if they fantasize about rape --doing it, or having it done to them. If they say no, they are lying." I wrote in protesting that this "fantasy" that is supposedly so universal is about desire, not sexualized hatred and violent power-craving. But, you know, who am I to say? Just kidding.