Sitting in an airport waiting room consuming Stieg Larsson’s second novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, I saw a man across the aisle reading Larsson’s first book—in Dutch. My local art theater is playing the cinematic version of the earlier story, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in Swedish with subtitles. Larsson mania has gone global. And with good reason. Swedish writer Larsson’s dark mysteries draw you in and hold you tight. Laundry, email, and other chores sat neglected as I charged through The Girl Who Played with Fire, the tale of a journalist and his doctoral-candidate girlfriend murdered just as their exposé of sex trafficking in teenage girls is about to appear in print.
The brooding Byronic heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anti-social but brilliant computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, returns from the earlier novel, but this time Salander is the hunted rather than the hunter. Suspected of the murders, she disappears while a motley array of investigators struggles to find her and unravel the increasingly complex clues surrounding the deaths. At the same time, we learn the painful truth about Salander’s murky past, a story that was only hinted at in the first book.
The strength of Larsson’s novels rests in his characters. Salander, in particular, is oddly compelling. Yes, she is rude (to put it mildly) and sometimes ruthlessly violent, but we want to understand her and ferret out her secrets. Her uncanny intellectual powers, MacGyver-esque tricks to elude capture and track down her enemies, and her mysterious background make her immensely interesting, if not entirely sympathetic. The struggle over whether to like or reject her, mirrored by Salander’s fictional friends, gives the novel its unusual power. Because Larsson leaves the question of Salander’s guilt or innocence tantalizingly unanswered until late in the plot, our loyalties are in constant question.
The protagonist of the earlier novel, Dudley Do-Right journalist Mikael Blomkvist- is less interesting here than in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where he was tortured by competing loyalties and his own trashed reputation. His main role in this novel is to proclaim Salander’s innocence to anyone who will listen, but his frenzied search for her, just one step ahead of the police, keeps the plot moving. He is joined in his quest by Salander’s strong and sassy sometimes lover, Miriam Wu, and Paolo Roberto, a champion boxer who just happens to be sparring buddies with the tiny and reclusive Salander.
If a world-class boxer as BFF for Salander seems improbable, it is just one of many gee-whiz coincidences in the convolutions of the plot. A twist in the good-guy-vs.-bad-guy confrontation at the end, in particular, stretches believability to the breaking point, but at that point I was too invested in the outcome to put the book down.
Larsson’s plot is gripping but brutal. While the novel, like its predecessor, condemns the rampant misogyny in modern society, scenes of the humiliation, rape, mutilation, and murder of women are described in prurient detail. And in The Girl Who Played with Fire, the worst derogatory terms for women are sprinkled liberally throughout the text (spoken, admittedly, by the bad guys). Larsson offers another compelling look at women’s status as second-class citizens even as he sometimes revels in the gory details. At times Larsson’s prose offers a disquieting disconnect between its proclaimed politics and its graphic content.
Larsson, who died unexpectedly shortly after delivering his manuscripts to the publisher, has one more adventure to give us. The third and final completed book (of a planned ten-part series), The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was just released. Let’s hope it brings us more Lisbeth Salander and more suspense, but fewer gratuitous scenes of gendered violence—the very thing that Larsson seemed to be supposedly fighting, after all.