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.
refers to her, but the book focuses on Mikhail Blomkvist, the activist editor of
magazine, whose mission is to ferret out government corruption and financial
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
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
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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