If there was ever an author whose work I ought not to enjoy, it would be the late Stieg Larsson. A Swedish journalist whose field of concentration was right-wing and “hate” groups, he was (as far as I can determine from net research) a lifelong, devoted Communist.
And yet I loved his first mystery, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I snapped up The Girl Who Played With Fire as soon as it came out in paperback, zipping through its 724 pages in a couple days.
I think it’s a case of “the enemy of my enemy.” Both I and the author view contemporary Sweden as an unsatisfactory country, but from opposite viewpoints.
The central character of this book, even more than of the first in the series, is Lisbeth Salander, a brilliantly realized character. Lisbeth is a tiny young woman, often mistaken for a teenager, multipally tattooed and pierced (though we’re told she’s removed one tattoo now, and stopped wearing most of her studs and rings). She’s an off-the-charts genius who works on Fermat’s Last Theorem in pencil, in a notebook, in her spare time. She’s also a world-class computer hacker, skilled in self-defense, socially inept, and slightly crazy, having been the victim of horrendous betrayal and abuse as a child—a history that forms an important element of the plot of this book.
When the story begins, she’s vacationing in the Caribbean, having easily and without remorse stolen a fortune from the bank account of the villain of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a corrupt financier. At the same time, the other main character of that book, Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, is making a deal with a young researcher to publish an article and a book on human sex trafficking.
But shortly before the release date, the researcher and his wife are murdered in their Stockholm apartment. A fingerprint on the murder gun, found near the scene, links it to Lisbeth Salander. On top of that, her former legal guardian, a man who abused her, has been found murdered with the same gun. Suddenly Lisbeth is the object of a national manhunt. Blomkvist tries to make contact with her and aid her, but Lisbeth will only do things her own way, and trusts no one completely, even Blomkvist.
I found The Girl Who Played With Fire absolutely compelling, from beginning to end. Most riveting was the character of Lisbeth who (as more than one character notes) is an intense, even compulsive, moralist.
“Moralist” should not be understood here in the American sense. The sexual ethics exhibited in this book are conventional Swedish—nothing is taboo, except for rape. Lisbeth herself is bisexual, and carries on a lesbian affair.
Lisbeth’s moralism is directed at the powerful who abuse the weak, especially men who abuse women (the Swedish title for the first book of the series means literally, Men Who Hate Women). She is also quick to believe herself betrayed, and almost incapable of forgiveness (much of the plot involves the gradual discovery of the unthinkable, unconscionable betrayals she suffered as a child). Lisbeth is a small Nemesis, a little Mosaic stone dropped into the turbid waters of Swedish society, disturbing the peace, bringing rotting things to the surface.
Oddly for a writer of Larsson’s politics and background, I found little or no political posturing in this story.
Maybe he’s saving it for the third book.
I’ll find out, because I sure plan to read it.
Cautions for language and mature situations.
Lars Walker reads and translates Norwegian, but gets his Swedish books in English translation. He is the author of several novels, the latest of which is West Oversea, a historical fantasy set in the Viking Age, published by Nordskog Publications.