As you might have seen, I recently re-read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in a bid to actually finish the trilogy which I had started so very long ago. My second read of the first novel produced no changes in my feelings, and I loved it every bit as much as I initially had (see review here). Wanting to maintain the momentum of Larsson’s world, I quickly dived into the next book.
The Girl Who Played with Fire (book number two), once again follows the main characters from the original novel, namely Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkovist is tirelessly busy continuing his work at Millenium after the Wenestrom affair, working on a new expose into the sex trade with a moralistic journalist, and said journalists girlfriend, a criminologist. Salander on the other hand, has suddenly cut off all ties with Blomkovist, enjoying her days traveling the world, whiling away the hours pursuing extremely complicated mathematics. That is, however, until the journalist and criminologist are brutally murdered, and Salander’s finger prints are found on the murder weapon (no spoilers – the blurb even states this!). Blomkovist is certain of Lisbeth’s innocence, but how can you help someone as secretive as Lisbeth, who is quickly condemned to life as a fugitive?
Yet again, the opening of this novel is initiated with a prequel, although the tone each book takes is vastly different. This prequel presents a young girl, tied to a bed and restrained from all but the barest of movements. I won’t say much more than that to avoid spoiling any shock factors, but I will say that it once again shows how engaging Larsson’s writing can be, instilling the necessary curiosity to establish the reader’s interest.
Whilst the first two books are comparative in their engaging prequels, this second book starts in an extremely different environment to the first. Suddenly we have left Sweden, and we find ourselves standing within the intense heat of Grenada, observing Salander. There was something almost comical about finding Salander in this location, with her penchant for tattoo’s, piercing, and punk fashion. It certainly gives a distinct opening which works to draw in the reader, as well as filling in some of the time which has passed between this novel and the first. Whilst the location may not seem very Salandar-esque, her new fascination with mathematics certainly is, and it created quite a comforting reminder of the methodical, intelligent approach Salander often takes, refusing to let anything escape or outwit her.
Quite frankly, after finishing this book I have an unrestrained urge for my feelings over the main plot line and twists to explode into a confusion of words and incoherent noises. Sadly, I must determinedly restrain myself, as these elements really do make the book such an extremely enjoyable and addictive read. So, what I will say is that this book builds on the mystery surrounding Salander from the first novel, specifically her childhood and the event named ‘All the Evil’, which Larsson tantalizingly teased us with. Additionally, we are greeted with many familiar faces, whilst simultaneously maintaining a high level of dislike, and even hate, for others.
Whilst the work Blomokivst and the journalist are fixed upon at Millenium can be viewed as a side story (although it does play a very important role), it never once felt that way, or as if Larsson was laboriously taking his time to lay the foundations for the main plot. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about how the sex trade and human trafficking operates in Sweden, even if it is a fictionalised account. Just as he did in the first book, with the ideas surrounding Wenestrom and financial journalism, Larsson once again seems to have put an incredible amount of research and hard work into tackling this issue in an intelligent manner, and it certainly feels wholly authentic. It certainly gave me food for thought, and has proved to be further reaching than something which exists to purely add interest to a crime novel. I think that it is a testament to the skill with which Larsson blends fact and fiction so seamlessly.
A theme which I found to be continuous throughout the book was that of relationships, be they seemingly ‘normal’, or extremely dysfunctional. The book explores these contrasting ideas, and presents a plethora of relationships to study and observe. It certainly made me consider what I myself deem to be a healthy relationship, and what society as a whole identifies as a healthy one, and whether these two ideas are ever actually the same. From relationships which are of the same sex or heterosexual, to the abusive, the parental and the friendly; the sheer volume of differing relationships the writer tackles is extremely impressive. Through this, we get rich character development, and we are able to see Larsson’s creations take on a life of their own, with the readers following fixedly behind.
As I have already stated, Salander becomes the prime suspect in a murder investigation, and a natural result of this is that we follow part of the criminal investigative team. I found this really refreshing, and also a complete contrast to the ways in which we have previously seen both Blomkovist and Salander herself gather and retrieve information. Additionally, this new perspective also sharply highlights the fact that even the official investigators can be brilliant and promising, but also in possession of many failing and shortcomings. It seems that there is a certain amount of critique to be made regarding the justice system, especially in cases where people can become personally involved, and things such as prejudices can often be overlooked with disastrous, and extremely unfair, consequences. Likewise, there is also an undercurrent of social commentary imparted through the study of psychologically, especially regarding the way Salander has been treated through this, and the ways in which society seems able to justify the stereotypes and associations it imparts onto a person, resulting massive prejudices. This can produce quite an uncomfortable read, but one that needs to happen nonetheless.
The deeper, critical readings are not limited to this. Yet again Salander, as well as several of her friends, provide an excellent window into gender studies. Quite frankly, I love Salander. Yes, she is a tiny, skinny woman with relatively little strength, but she is an incredibly smart, feisty woman who uses everything she can to her advantage to challenge the stereotypes enforced upon her by patriarchy. She proves that there is more to an individual than any limitations physicality or appearance may produce. Admittedly, she is often irrational and trigger happy, but she is a fantastically refreshing woman who needs neither man or woman to dictate her life.
Having now read two of Stieg Larsson’s books, I can confidently say that what I like so much about his writing is that it is so effortless to read. That is not to say that Larsson’s writing style is simplistic (far from it), but there is something about his words which are extremely enjoyable to read, whether that is the more mundane aspects of the novel, or the more intense, thrilling ones. Every word he has written feels needed, and as if it is contributing to the bigger picture, with no fillers or needless parts included. It is so fantastic to read an entertaining book which is also so thought provoking.
Once again, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of characters, narrative perspectives, plot, and sub-plots which Larsson seems to so effortlessly work into one seamlessly coherent novel. There are secrets within secrets, and characters who are simultaneously good and bad, yet never once do we feel the pressure of this challenge within the novel. Whilst I loved the first book, and actually gave it five starts, this undoubtedly steps it up a whole new level, resulting in me having to actually downgrade book one to a four start read! On reflection, the first novel holds us at more of a careful distance, which we cleverly do not realise until the stakes become so very personal in this book. Whilst I may have dropped the first book a star, it has actually given me a greater appreciation of the very deep foundations which Larsson so brilliantly laid down in it. For those of you who love crime fiction and have yet to start this series, do so immediately!