The second in the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy does what seems impossible: it improves on the first. This comes against the grain because sequels often fail to match the trail blazer they follow. Prior to reading The Girl who Played with Fire, the first seemed to allow for no improvement.
There is little point in even picking this book up as an introduction. The history, character building and background have all been all charted out in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first and no other can manage a standalone status.
After the freezing Swedish climes Lisbeth Salander is sunning herself in the Caribbean, much like I had been doing while reading this book in Palma Nova. One difference was that Salandar adds a new string to her already well stocked formidable intellectual bow as she tackles Fermat's Last Theorem. Nothing quite so challenging for me.
The opening moves here veer off into a cul de sac and left me wondering if Larsson at some point meant to return to them. George Bland, a likeable character, who seemed to have a role in his own right rather than being a sex toy for Lisbeth Salander walked off stage as quickly as he had arrived on it. With Larsson’s early demise we might never know if George had a future. Dusty manuscripts that sometimes survive to see the light of day can disclose what we thought were lost forever. But even here in addition to her tryst with Bland, Salander does what she does best: hacking other people’s computers. And during a tropical storm she brought another talent to bear against the wife battering Dr Forbes.
The violence that Salander has little hesitation about unleashing is certainly brutal but it can hardly be called mindless or gratuitous. There is always a purpose to and in large part because of it, despite the strong challenge from Detective Sara Lund from The Killing, Salander is probably the undisputed heroine of Scandicrime.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is an apt choice of title for more reasons than one. It is by no means a slow burner. The central characters of Blomkvist and Salander are well known to the reader as a result of the painstaking character construction Larsson pursued in the opening book of this trilogy. Here he peels away more of the layers of the mysterious Salander’s past, making her even more interesting and violent but strangely not menacing. She is the character the reader invariably trusts and roots for as Larsson weaves her into a critique of, amongst other things, how the Swedish social services handles child protection issues.
I slipped into the world of Lisbeth Salander with such ease that when she lit up a cigarette I could mentally smell the tobacco to the point that reached for one of my wife’s Marlborough Lights and joined both in this dubious of pleasures as I sat sipping rum in the Majorcan sun.
Larsson moves on from the Vengers and the Hedeby Island in this novel. At one point Salander goes AWOL for a large chunk of the story only to make it more invigorating when she returns after a year in absentia. Flush with finance she buys an apartment, which along with my wife I managed to see in Stockholm while on the Stieg Larrson tour. Her rapist from the Dragon Tattoo however has not gone away and is bent on exacting revenge for his earlier encounter with her.
In addition to tackling Fermat's Last Theorem Salander is interested in some doctoral research work on the abuse of women in Swedish society. In her bid to better understand it she discovered something more serious than abuse. Finding herself accused of three murders, the odds are against her. The dots are all there including those that constitute her finger prints. and when joined they pronounce a guilty verdict. There simply seems no other suspect and the circumstantial evidence is strong. Mikael Blomkvist doesn’t buy the narrative and sets himself the task of looking further. The police, having written her off as a lost cause, see her as somebody to be pursued relentlessly until the end. Sweden experiences a nationwide hunt for the country’s most wanted. The press have labelled her a member of a Satanist lesbian group. If Blomqvist fails to reach her before the cops do she is dead. And someone as determined not to be found as Salander, Blomqvist’s task will be arduous.
But coordination between the two is far from easy. She and Blomkvist, or ‘Bastard’ as she liked to call him when she thought of him, had parted ways. On her way to deliver a present to him in the closing pages of Dragon Tattoo she saw him in an embrace with his long time married lover. Suddenly an alternative title for the second book conjured itself up: The Girl with the Green Eyed Monster.
Then of course there are real monsters. Managing to overcome the biker gang or ‘blond giant’ who she is now pitted against is not just as easy as disposing of Bjurman’s unsolicited advances. The emergence of Sala explains something about Salander’s incendiary disposition. This man of international mystery and intrigue causes the Swedish security service, SAPO, to peer out from deep within its murk. Larsson, hailing from the Marxist school, in pusuing these themes offers some potent social commentary on the abuses of power within Swedish society.
Such is the tempo of this book it rages like a fire uncontained by prolonged character building which took up much of the early narrative in Dragon Tattoo. There are a few coincidences that stretch credulity but writer’s licence allows Larsson to get away with it. When the final page is reached the reader knows that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is waiting to put her boots on.
Stieg Larsson, 2009, The Girl Who Played With Fire. MacLehose Press: London. ISBN 9781906694180