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Onyx reviews: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

Lisabeth Salander plays a small but pivotal role in Stieg Larsson's debut novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The title refers to her, but the book focuses on Mikhail Blomkvist, the activist editor of Millennium magazine, whose mission is to ferret out government corruption and financial malfeasance.

Salander is a diminutive woman (4' 11", 90 lbs) who is trained in self defense and in the use of most weapons. She has a photographic memory and can hack into any computer she targets. She has friends and lovers of both genders, and is devoted to the few people in her world who have been kind to her. For leisure, she reads a book of math puzzles and is fascinated by Fermat's Last Theorem. Despite all this, according to the state she is incapable of handling her own affairs. She has been appointed a guardian to whom she must report on a regular basis, but she turned the tables on her handler.

Why is she considered so unstable and ineffectual when readers know what she is capable of?

That question and others are answered in The Girl Who Played With Fire, which is Salander's origin tale, recounting the back story and contemporary plight of the young woman. The details of her horrific past are slowly revealed. Her tattoos and numerous piercings betray self-image problems.

Flush with money stolen from a corrupt financier, she has done a little personal renovation. Laser surgery erased her dragon tattoo, and she got a boob job. She has also broken off all contact with Blomkvist, who she had an affair with while  assisting him in the search for a missing heiress in Hedeby Island.

The Girl Who Played With Fire gets off to an unusually slow start. Salander, now 26 years old, is using her ill-gotten gains to see the world—although she's not supposed to be eligible for a passport—and is enjoying an extended stay in the Caribbean. She takes on a very young lover, and is keeping an eye on a man who is acting suspiciously. A hurricane brings this plot to a head, allowing Salander to exact her unorthodox form of punishment. However, none of these events have any bearing on the rest of the book. Larsson takes up an unprecedented amount of real estate showing us what Salander's life is like—too much. The minute details of her IKEA shopping trips after she returns to Sweden are equally excessive and irrelevant.

Blomkvist is back at the reins of Millennium after his legal troubles with the financier Wennerstrom were resolved. When the book's focus switches back to him, a second problem arises. Larsson has a political/social agenda to get across, and the book bogs down in speechifying and information dump. 

Blomkvist is approached by a young researcher and her journalist boyfriend. Together they have a brilliant exposť to offer. Mia Johansson is writing a thesis on the trafficking of Baltic women in the Swedish sex industry. Her documentation indicts important and influential people at all levels of society. Her boyfriend, Dag Svensson, is writing a more sensational account of the story which he hopes to publish both as a book and as an article in Millennium. This is exactly the kind of story Blomkvist (and probably Larsson, before his untimely death) lives for; however, the lecturing gets a little overwhelming. The theme of rampant misogyny pervades just about every plot and subplot in the novel.

Fortunately, patience and persistence are rewarded once the real story gets underway. Johansson and Svensson are the victims of a brutal murder, and circumstantial evidence points to a surprising suspect: Salander. She had been snooping into Blomkvist's computer files, knew about the story the young couple were working on, and discovered ties between it and her troubled past.

Readers are aware of Salander's temper. She is a hornet's nest best left undisturbed, so the possibility that she might have been involved in the murders can't be dismissed. It doesn't help matters when a third victim is discovered: her guardian, the man on whose chest she had earlier carved an incriminating message.

The only way Larsson can keep Salander's involvement in the crime vague is to take her off the stage for a large chunk of the book. It's easy enough to do: her picture is in every newspaper in the country and is being broadcast on national television every day. Innocent or guilty, she has to go underground.

The police are delighted to find damning evidence, but the smarter cops find the situation a little too convenient. Blomkvist was the first person on the scene, and his former lover is the main suspect. Convenient or not, the evidence must be followed. However, Blomkvist pursues his own, independent inquiry when he sees the way the police are thinking. In addition to wanting to defend Salander, he has another investment to protect. Many of the coded details in the unpublished manuscript still need to be fact-checked before the presses can run.

Larsson provides an interesting look at the Swedish police task force established to solve the murders. The cops aren't all bumbling fools, nor are they all clever crimesolvers—they're very human, each with personal issues that affect his or her performance on the job. There are petty personal conflicts among the members of the team, and the injection of two members from Milton Security, the private security firm where Salander used to work, further complicates matters. The nominal head of the task force is a political flunky, but the man charged with actually solving the crime recognizes that Blomkvist's opinion of Salander and her unyielding, if unorthodox, sense of morality is at odds with the psychiatric evaluations in her official file.

By the end of the book, though readers have a much better understanding of Salander, Blomkvist remains an enigma. Larsson never explains what fuels his passion or why he is so devoted to uprooting corruption. His love life is a mess, and somewhat hard to credit. He has a long-term relationship with his partner at Millennium, Erika Berger, whose milksop of a husband seems unperturbed by the fact that she seeks sexual gratification elsewhere. All Berger asks is that Erika keep coming back home to him after her frequent assignations with Blomkvist. It seems like the stuff of male fantasy.

Larsson isn't above playing a few cliché cards during the book's climax, either. Main among these is the old, highly manipulative "shoot someone, assume they're dead and bury them" gag. Still, for all its flaws, The Girl Who Played with Fire is worth spending some time with. The central murder mystery has all the twists and turns any crime lover would want, and the book is filled with cinematic—and occasionally humorous—fight scenes, and one daring rescue after another. Salander has a dry wit, and her ability to out-think her adversaries when she is outgunned or outnumbered makes her a formidable and appealing heroine.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will complete the Millennium trilogy. In that book, Larsson will need to deal with Salander's discoveries and with Erika's plans to leave the magazine for another job. Hopefully he will also spend some time on Blomkvist, filling in the glaring gaps in his backstory.

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