Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge
The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second book in the Millennium Trilogy (shut up, that ghost written fourth book and its followup is not part of the series) by Stieg Larsson. After my forays into Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s and Jo Nesbø’s writing, it was a relief to be back in Larsson’s safe hands.
I’m conflicted about these books. The abuse that fuels the anger that shapes Lisbeth Salander as a character is horrific. I want to look away from it. The dispassion with which it’s described confuses me. And yet, I understand what Larsson is doing. Abusers are dispassionate about their perversion. And Salander is a damaged woman trying to feel in control, unwilling to trust anyone. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would feel exploitative.
I’m conflicted about the sympathetic male characters, too. Especially Mikael Blomkvist. I want to slap him at times, right before I remember that he’s an honestly rendered character, flawed like all of us, not the romantic hero, a person with good intentions who is blundering through.
I’m not conflicted about Lisbeth Salander, though. She’s as angry and vengeful as ever in this installment, and goes about exacting her revenge in pragmatic ways. This time around, she’s the subject of a vengeance plot herself, with her legal guardian looking for closure after their last humiliating and brutal encounter.
Running in and out of this story are threads that keep Salander connected to the people who care about her, even when she’s doing her best to disconnect from them. Some of those threads are clunkily written, with too much description and heavy handed exposition. Whenever Salander is front and centre, though, the story comes alive.
The story takes a turn that I hadn’t anticipated. It actually made me gasp. A double murder occurs, a young couple who have links to Blomkvist and to Salander, and the hunt is on to find the killer or to prove the innocence of the main suspect. As well as the police, two private businesses each with their own vested interest conduct investigations. It’s gripping stuff.
A seedy underworld is revealed. Police officers, lawyers and journalists are implicated in a sex trafficking ring that intersects with a drug dealing cartel.
I was cutting between this novel (on my Kindle, easy to commute with) and David Olusoga’s Black and British (borrowed from the library, needs to go back, less easy to commute with). This is the first time I’ve consciously chosen to read two books at once. It’s no disservice to The Girl Who Played with Fire when I say that the episodic style of each chapter made it easy to pick up and put down. It’s obviously not a frivolous book, dealing as it does with abuse and sex trafficking, but it’s also not a heavy book. Ultimately, it’s a thriller, and a thriller needs to have pace and excitement. It’s testament to Larsson that he was able to deal with such terrible topics and make them gripping, not distressing.
Some of the exposition is a little clunky, usually when new characters need to be introduced quickly. Backstories can have a back of a fag packet feel to them when they’re dumped in a paragraph for the sole purpose of moving a character into the action. Some of the less sympathetic supporting characters hold egregious opinions that Larsson has them express with chilling believability. Taken as a whole, though, the book is entertaining and gripping, with Salander and Blomkvist two of the best characters I’ve come across in crime novels.
The ending is simultaneously exciting and farfetched. I was more than happy to suspend my disbelief and take Larsson’s explanation for what happened with only a tiny pinch of salt. I’m itching to read the next one now, but there are other countries to visit in the reading challenge I’m following, and books on my TBR to go with the places I need to visit before the end of the month.