Review: ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’

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The late Stieg Larsson (1954 – 2004) left a legacy that includes the Millennium Trilogy of novels, a dispute between his life partner of 30 years and his family over the estate, and an unfinished forth book that would continue the story he began in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and ended with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

As the second book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is as absorbing as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Once again, the primary characters are the crusading magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the illusive goth super computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist and Salander are both complex, three-dimensional characters, the former, no doubt, inspired by Larsson’s career focus as a journalist. Salander is less goth than she was in “tattoo” and her background and motivations are more fleshed out.

Cast of Characters and Plot

Readers will know from the back cover blurb that Millennium Magazine’s investigative journalism in this book focuses on sex trafficking, that two people are killed before the material is published and that Salander is a suspect.

Once matters played out in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander went on vacation. Unfortunately, this initial section of the book appears to have little to do with the plot. Salander’s development as a person gains strength during this vacation section. She does get involved in a harrowing experience. Yet, these events do not come into play later in the novel.

Except for other supporting characters whom readers met in “Tattoo,” most of the characters have few shades of grey. To some extent, they are stereotypes of the roles they play: liberal and conflicted journalists, sadistic had guys with a brutal and horrific way to life, and police with a dutiful approach but very little imagination.

Writing Style and Approach

Larsson tells his story from the viewpoint of multiple characters. This works more often than not in “Fire” because the reader sees what everyone is doing and what conflicts between them are upcoming. The approach works less well in cases where the point of view shifts to a character who, in real life, would think certain things, yet Larsson conveniently focuses their attention on something else.

One question on the reader’s mind, for example, is likely to be: “Are the police right about Salander and the murders?” Larsson goes into a “listmania” amount of detail about almost every part of the magazine work and police work, including the characters’ thoughts. Yet after the murders occur, he does not allow Salander to think either “I hope they don’t find out I did it” or “why the hell do they think I did it?” Such thoughts would go through most people’s minds. The tension is ramped up through the fact Salander does not ponder this, but it is an artificial device.

The surprising thing about the Millennium Trilogy phenomenon is that the books are popular (35 million copies sold as of last summer) in spite of their length. While some readers complain that they “just couldn’t get into “Tattoo,” the books sell well and generate a large number of reader reviews on Amazon and commentary on blogs and news stories.

The exceptional level of detail contributes to the length (“Fire” in paperback has 724 pages) and—at its best—immerses the reader into the the worlds of both the predators and prey in the book. The reader is brought “close in” to the action. At its worst, the detail wastes time, especially when it focuses on things (such as Salander spending a day shopping for furniture for her apartment) that do not advance the plot.

On Balance

On balance, the book succeeds. Its high points are the author’s development of Lisbeth Salander, the intricacies of its plot, and the author’s use of mini-cliffhanger plot points when he shifts the story’s view point from one character to another. The Guardian’s comment that Salander is a Laura Croft for grown-ups is certainly apt.

The ending of the book is satisfactory in terms of emotional justice for characters and readers. However—like other scenes in the book—it relies a bit too much on contrived coincidences. Nothing is totally resolved, though we can forgive the author that because at this point, since there’s still another book to come.

The Controversy Surrounding the Estate

Larsson died without a will. According to Swedish law, his life partner of 30 years does not have the rights of a spouse. Consequently, Larsson’s assets, including control of the books, passes to his brother and father rather than to Eva Gabrielsson.

Gabrielsson contends that the brother and father were virtually estranged from Larsson and herself and that she helped plan the Millennium series from the beginning. On the Support Eva web site, she also claims that “she was there when he received death threats from ultra-nationalist groups” and was an integral part of everything that the rest of the family had nothing to do with. Larsson’s own experience clearly was a major factor in the creation of the Blomkvist character and the other investigative journalists and she says she was part of it.

The brother contends in press releases, some of which you can find on the Stieg Larsson web site, that the family has been more than fair, that it has returned to Gabrielsson many assets she held in common with Larsson, and that they are willing to work with her in creating additional books. They contend that had Larsson wanted her to have total control of the estate, he would have married her and/or created a will.

Fuel will be added to this fire when Gabrielsson’s new book Stieg & Moi becomes available in Europe next week. Meanwhile, Gabrielsson will work on another Millennium Book. See “Stieg Larsson’s partner plans to complete final Millennium novel.” See also “Stieg Larsson feud hots up with partner’s memoir.”

Some commentators have said that the controversy surrounding the estate has the same flavor of the novels itself: that is, it’s about men who hate women. While that characterization’s accuracy depends on the “side” one takes in the dispute, it adds another level of detail and drama to an appealing series of books.

–Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three novels, including the 2010 “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” about a man suspended between heaven and hell in a world where one place is often mistaken for the other.

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3 responses

  1. Certainly, there are parts that are contrived, but it’s still a rollicking good read, Malcolm. I’ve enjoyed the trilogy and was sad to reach the end of it.

  2. Pingback: My Book Reviews of 2011 « Malcolm's Round Table