The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)

Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2006 original, 503 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06902-6

Second instalment in the massively popular Millennium trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers, The Girl Who Played with Fire continues the adventures of Larsson’s duo of righteous avengers by following up threads left open in the first volume in the context of a new mystery.  It’s a different type of story, and it leads straight to the final book in the trilogy.

It picks up nearly a year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as Lisbeth Salander comes back to Stockholm after some time spent travelling around the world.  This set up a chain of events that eventually send Salander on the run, suspected of three murders –including that of her sadistic guardian so memorably neutralized in the first volume of the trilogy.  Meanwhile, boy-scout journalist Mikael Blomkvist isn’t too far away from the story, as one of the victims was working for his Millennium magazine in exposing a prostitution network.  The strange collaboration between Salander and Blomkvist resumes anew as the stakes are raised ever higher for Salander.

Much of the same strengths that made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an enjoyable introduction to the series are in full display here:  The intricate procedural detail; the left-leaning look at modern Sweden society in all its flaws; the indignation at violence against women; the intensely genre-aware character-motivated plotting and (certainly not least) the two lead protagonists themselves.  Salander, newly refurbished and rich beyond belief, is still considered a crackpot by Swedish society at large, and The Girl Who Played with Fire goes much deeper in her personal history than anyone would expect.  This is her big novel in terms of back-story, and it cleanly illuminates a number of the character traits established in the first volume: why she’s so asocial, brilliant and driven.  Meanwhile, Blomkvist holds steady as a gifted editor/journalist, though he gets little more to do here than piece together the whole story and race ineffectually on Salander’s trail.

That The Girl Who Played with Fire is Salander’s story is most directly reflected in its tone.  After a lengthy procedural first half, the novel gradually transforms itself in a revenge thriller, and the ending is nothing short of brutal for everyone involved.  While there is a mystery to solve, this second volume is more forward-moving than the first: it’s a thriller more than a mystery, and despite the Cold War flashbacks, we don’t go digging quite as deep in Swedish history.

The price to pay for this story, unfortunately, the amount of sometimes-ridiculous procedural detail that Larsson crams into his novel.  This reaches an apex of sorts as we follow Salander during a page-long trip at IKEA: We get not only the specific models of what she buys, but a total of what it cost.  For all of the fuzzy warm feeling that readers may get in realizing that they’re reading the novel on the very same Poäng armchair that Salander has in her apartment, there’s a point where it’s possible to wonder How much of this is really necessary? The novel goes far beyond Salander and Blomkvist as viewpoint characters, involving an entire cast of protagonists, antagonists, friends, police and helpful bystanders.  The thriller plot itself barely begins before the first half of the book is over, and only starts cooking in the last quarter.  If nothing else, reading the novel will affirm how skilful the movie adaptation was in keeping the truly essential elements of the story.

Still, seasoned thriller readers will find a number of interesting elements to savour.  The often-corrupt Swedish setting is just as interesting, whereas Larsson’s tweaks to the usual thriller plot templates can keep things interesting: Both heroes are kept physically apart until the very last moments of the novel, and two of the book’s big action moments go to secondary characters rather than the lead protagonists.  (In a note that will go unnoticed by most North-American readers, Larsson even gives a significant heroic role to real-life boxer Paolo Roberto, resulting in one of the best real-life cameo in any novel, ever.)

Readers with sufficient patience and attention span to last through the often-lengthy but usually delicious exposition will only be pleased by this successful second volume.  But anyone with even the slightest interest in reading more about those two characters should keep the third volume close by, since the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire leads directly to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

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