I awaited THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE by Stieg Larsson with the same fervor that many possess with respect to the latest version of their favorite smart phone, video game, or film. The stories behind what have become known as the Millennium series, and their late author, are fascinating in their own right and well documented elsewhere; I would urge you to familiarize yourself, at least briefly, with both before undertaking this novel. If you have yet to read THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it is not necessary to do so to fully enjoy the second volume of this amazing series. Larsson does a magnificent job in making new readers feel welcome, as well as bringing those familiar with the first installment up to snuff as to what has gone before. If THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was amazing, then THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is astonishing, perfect in every conceivable way.
The Millennium series takes its name from a fictitious magazine, a publication of investigative journalism, that serves in the books as the nexus for all that occurs. Mikael Blomkvist, the publisher, is an interesting character, possessed of a steel-trap mind and a razor-sharp intellect. He is also a bit of a rake, if you will, having a number of “friends, with privileges,” including two of the ladies on the staff of the magazine. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO concerned what transpired when Blomkvist became involved with a waiflike woman named Lisbeth Salander, who among many other things saved Blomkvist’s life and in some ways his career. We also learned that Salander is an extremely unusual, very dangerous individual, who is highly intelligent, capable of doing anything at any given time, and badly damaged.
As THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE begins, approximately one year has passed since the events described in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO; Salander, for reasons unknown to Blomkvist, has terminated their relationship and has begun to impulsively travel. She is in Grenada as the book begins, working mathematical problems by the pool, taking a lover, and keeping an eye on a couple who are staying in the room next to hers. After an eventful, even breathtaking, series of occurrences, Salander returns home and begins to try to establish at least the trappings of a normal existence, using the proceeds from her ill-gotten gain to do so.
Blomkvist, for his part, is settled back at the helm of his beloved Millennium, which will be publishing both a story and a book by a freelancing journalist/research couple who are preparing an expose on the Swedish sex-trafficking industry. Blomkvist’s life violently intersects with Salander’s again when Salander unexpectedly, though not inexplicably, becomes the primary suspect in a triple murder, the victims of which are the freelancing couple, as well as a third party who played a prominent role in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO; all of them are connected in some way to Salander. She becomes the subject of a police manhunt that is exploited to its limit, and beyond, by the press. And here we have but one of the examples of Larsson’s genius.
Salander disappears from the book as an active participant at this point, a little over a third of the way through, and does not reappear for a good while. As the tale unfolds, it seems entirely possible that she did commit one, if not all three, of the murders. At first Blomkvist is the only person who believes in her innocence. His investigation, carried on independently from that of the police, slowly begins to reveal Salander’s past, the history of which sheds light on some, but certainly not all, of the reasons why Salander is the way she is, and additionally leads to the revelation of why the victims were murdered to begin with. By the time Salander reappears in the final third of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, she is more understandable, and much more frightening. The reader learns not of her limits, but of what she is truly capable and why.
The book ends thunderously, and not without irony. By that time, you might be reading so quickly you’ll overshoot the ending and start another book. But never fear. A third --- and apparently final --- volume, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST, is planned for publication in 2010. One can only imagine how that will begin, let alone end. It’s not that there aren’t any possible beginnings for the next book; it’s that the conclusion of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE contains so many possibilities for what comes next.
Stieg Larsson was an amazing author, and the manifestation of that conclusion continues to be so. For example, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO featured a fascinating character named Plague, who barely appears in THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE; though he plays an important role, he is barely present for two pages. A lesser or intellectually lazier author would have leaned on him more, having spent all sorts of blood, sweat, toil and tears creating him to start with. Not Larsson. He instead populated THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE with a new group of unforgettable characters, including a number from Salander’s past, not the least of whom is Zala. Watch out for that one. There also is a series of seemingly pointless exercises in mathematics that, one might think, has nothing to do with the story but has much to do with this one and, I would guess, the next as well. And Grenada? I think that what happens on that beach will have repercussions down the road.
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long already. Please read THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. Its 500-plus pages have the detail of a thousand, but you’ll read them with the speed and intensity of a short story. This is the book that should sell five million copies, that people should stand in line for at midnight. Very strongly recommended, if you hadn’t guessed already.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011