by Stieg Larsson
630 pages, Vintage
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The follow-up to the phenomenally successful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo continues the adventures of journalist Mikail Blomkvist and the talented hacker Lisbeth Salander. Readers of the first book will know that although the loose ends of the complex plot were tied up, there still remained a huge number of unanswered questions about Salander and her mysterious past. The Girl who Played with Fire sees Salander accused of murder and then follows her efforts to clear her name. Blomkvist, convinced of her innocence, embarks on an investigation of his own that reveals a lot about Salander’s murky history and also blows the lid on a cover-up dating back to the Cold War.
Complicated? Very much so - but in the hands of an accomplished storyteller such as Larsson, the reader never once feels lost or totally confused. Just as in the first book in the Millennium Trilogy, Larsson drip-feeds the reader with just enough information to keep them turning the pages. Unlike the first book which centered around a private investigation conducted by Blomkvist, the hunt for Salander is headline news and so is led by police Inspector Bublanski and his team. Once again, Larsson’s gift for characterization and portraying the shifting relationships between the novel’s main players means that following the police procedurals is consistently gripping. He enables you to feel sympathy for Bublanski’s efforts to bring the elusive Salander to justice even whilst you root for Salander herself.
Just as in the previous novel, Larsson’s own liberal politics provide a moral backbone for his central characters. Salander is referred to in the book as “the woman who hates men who hate women” – echoing the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Indeed, the story is fuelled by the cruel actions of men who abuse their positions of power within society. As men who respect women and avoid violence, Blomkvist and Bublanski seem outnumbered by the brutish men who populate the pages. The physical domination of women by men is something that clearly made Larsson’s blood boil. Interestingly, just as Ang Lee pulled off a clever role-reversal in the sublime Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Larsson’s most volatile, violent character is Lisbeth Salander herself.
Larsson also uses the main storyline to make a serious point about how the media are allowed to portray suspects in criminal investigations, highlighting the inherent homophobia and conservatism within the system. No sooner has Salander become a suspect than all kinds of lurid details about her personal life emerge. A barrage of headlines that would make the Daily Mail seem left-wing declaim her as a psychopathic devil-worshipping lesbian and threaten to seal her fate. However, those who know her best pool their efforts and delve into her traumatic past in order to find the truth.
Though the book promises to reveal much about Salander’s past, we are only really given a cursory glance at her childhood before the novel comes to a sudden end. It’s akin to being given a bottle of water when you’re really thirsty, then taking a sip only to discover that it’s vinegar. The whole novel, even the title, points to an event in Salander’s childhood that shaped her into the fascinating character she is. Once the mystery is explained, we are left wanting more and this is Larsson’s coup de grâce. Just when we think we’ve got a good grasp of what makes Salander tick, we realise that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. All will be revealed, apparently, in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. A neat trick to get us to read the subsequent book in the trilogy, but a frustrating ending to another brilliant novel from Larsson.
Hereward L.M. Proops