Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Girl Who Played with Fire--Stieg Larsson

Photo:  First edition front cover of the Swedish book, from its Wikipedia site

Second book of the deceased author's Millenium trilogy, in many ways superior to the first.  It continues the trend of bucking the solid rules of publishing--jumping between even more 3rd person limited characters than the first one did; not getting to the crux of the mystery until well after page 100; many pages of frankly unnecessary pages of exposition...But, again, it all works.  And, of course, that's what matters most.  If it works, do it.

To be honest, this one actually dragged a bit in the first half, but it really took off in the second.  Lisbeth, who Larsson must've known was his most intriguing character when he was maybe a quarter into the first manuscript, is largely out of the picture; she's been accused of three murders, and she's hiding.  The reader, through some clever trickery in Larsson's 3rd person limited narration, has to admit that maybe she did kill Bjurman (I thought so); but it won't take an ingenious reader to see that Larsson leaves us with Lisbeth at the apartment of the other two victims, hoping we'll think she killed them.  You won't think so.  But I'll bet, if you've already read it, that you thought she did kill Bjurman.  It happened according to how she'd threatened him in the first book; he was naked, kneeling and begging.  When it was disclosed that she hadn't killed him, I was surprised.  So that's a good thing about this book--you're somewhat surprised by the actions (or, the non-actions) of a now-familiar character.  (If you weren't fooled like I was, more power to you.)

The plot mostly follows Blomqvist and the many minor characters this time.  Larsson ingeniously pulls a Bram Stoker/Dracula move here: Lisbeth is largely absent through the majority of the book, noticeably visible only in the beginning and in the end.  In the meantime, all of the characters, major and minor, are looking for her.  She's the Hitchcockian McGuffin.  But as Dracula was more of a force in Stoker's book precisely because he was absent and sought after throughout most of it, Lisbeth here is, too.  Everybody talks about her; everyone's looking for her; some are trying to slander her (notice the similarity to her name there; I'll bet Larsson had an extensive outline for all three books at once, and so knew that slander would be how most of the characters attacked her in all three novels--I'm halfway through the last one now) while others are trying to unsmear the many smear campaigns.  And so by omission, her character actually becomes stronger and more dangerous.  And more poignant: when she finally re-appears, the reader is happy to see her again.  Her character is the dessert that you cherish because you're not allowed to have it very often.

And when she does re-appear in the last small percentage of the book, she owns it.  She's a force, not just for the reader; not just for the characters she (righteously) beats up.  She's simply a force, in of herself, like the waterspout she sees in the beginning.  (Which remained a largely unnecessary section, but for the theme just mentioned.  Hopefully the second half of the third book will tie that together, but I'm not feelin' it.)  She is the force that all of the other characters revolve around, are attracted to, and are repelled from.  She is their Sun.

Which is not to say that all is perfect.  A nationally-famous boxer comes to the rescue at the last minute.  (That scene reminded me of one in one of Robert B. Parker's books--which Larsson undoubtedly read, as the constant allusions to the authors of the genre show--in which Spenser and Hawk have to bring down a monster of a man, which they are barely able to do, even together.)  Again, it works, and it shouldn't have.  Lisbeth survives a premature burial, a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2.  She gets out by digging with a cigarette case, after getting shot three times, including once in the head, which exposes a bit of brain.  (How that didn't get infected by all that dirt, especially when she touched the brain with one dirt-encrusted finger, is a mystery.)  This sounds ridiculous, but the scene (and the ones immediately following) was remarkably effective, so much so that when I awoke at 3 a.m. afterwards, for no reason, it was the first thing I thought of (though getting up for work in three hours should've been), and even just the memory of it was smothering.  (This is a high compliment from me.)  The remaining pages is as much of a suspenseful page-turner as you are likely to read.  You will find yourself actually rooting for a character you know is not real.  This is not something I do often, even with books and characters I like a lot.  I amazed myself at doing so.

P.S.--Accolades must now be given to the translator of all three books, Reg Keeland.


  1. Several years ago Tom Ashbrook did a show on NPR about the series and the person he was interviewing spoke a lot about how Lisbeth is based on the Scandinavian character Pippy Longstockings, as in... what would trouble maker Pippy be like as an adult. I guess Pippy Longstockings is a very big deal in Swedish society, and thinking about Lisbeth with the Pippy lens certainly gave me a different reading.

  2. I thought about that, too, because of the constant allusions throughout the series. (I have to admit that the only experience I have with Pippi's character is that, famously, a major network interrupted its coverage of a Super Bowl to air the show, or movie. The team behind at the time, with just over a minute left [which can last forever in football, a fact you'd think the network would know], came back to win--and the whole nation missed it.) Despite that, I just can't imagine Pippi having done the things that Lisbeth did--and does.