Monday, November 29, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson - Book Review

WARNING! The book review that follows is quite positive and, I hope, might influence readers to purchase and read it.  Please don't do this until you have read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in this trilogy of detective thrillers set in Sweden and translated from Swedish.  My review of the first book can be read here.

The Review - As The Girl Who Played with Fire opens, Mikael Blomgvist has become a celebrity journalist, one of the outcomes of the previous book, and Lisbeth Salander, the strange, damaged, and brilliant computer hacker (and the girl in both titles) is on an extended round the world trip.  Blomqvist's magazine, a crusading journal called Millenium, that often uncovers injustice within the strangling and contorted world of the Swedish welfare state, is overseeing the development of a series of articles and a book dealing with sexual trafficking in a country where sex is common and varied, but importing prostitutes illegal.  Through a series of coincidences, Salander's finger prints are found on the gun used to murder to two crusading journalists.  She is quickly labeled by the press and many of the police as a sadistic, sociopathic murderer who never should have been released from the asylum to which she was committed at age thirteen.  The search for Salander begins, and she has only a very few supporters who don't see her as the guilty person based on circumstantial evidence.Those who read the first novel will feel a sense of dread as possible familiar directions begin to emerge.  Larsson methodically and surprisingly cuts off each anticipated direction as a new plot emerges.

The Lisbeth Salander of the first of these volumes is a deeply damaged, almost paranoid young woman who has somehow survived a grueling childhood which gave her no reason to trust those in authority.  She guards herself with extreme care, never allowing others close to her, revealing her past, or her present, for that matter.  The reader learns of her skills as a cyber sleuth and hacker and comes to recognize her personal strength despite her quirky, prickly personality and capacity for violence.  In the present book, much of her back story becomes an integral part of the narrative as she becomes a more fully developed and rounded (in literary terms, she's still 4'11" tall and weighs about 90 pounds), although she's had some surgery, too.  As the investigation continues, readers learn more about who Lisbeth is and what has caused her to learn to behave the way she does.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is not without its problems for a reader.  Swedish society and culture are quite different from what American readers experience on a daily basis.  Somehow, Sweden comes across as a place where there is tremendous personal freedom bounded by restrictions of custom and law that can both liberate and suffocate.  The Swedes seem to live comfortably within those limitations, but some American readers might find the culture quite alien, particularly the amount of sexual license accepted within the culture.  Readers who've worked their way through Russian novels are familiar with the problem of names.  Some people end up calling characters Bob, Dave, Jane, and Sara, while others try to fake pronunciations they can live with.  The Girl who Played with Fire is filled with characters, almost all of whom have names unfamiliar to our ears and tongues.  Getting a handle on the names and roles of all the characters takes a while, but most all of them settle out in the end. Finally, place names in a strange country present a problem.  It's impossible to imagine many of the settings of this novel.  Incidentally, there are approximately seven kroner to the dollar.  This may help rationalize the conversion of monetary value.
               Stieg Larsson
All that having been said, The Girl Who Played with Fire is an intensely engaging suspense novel with an underlying core of moral outrage that brings the reader along with it.  Larsson's most admirable characters hate men who hate women.  Psychological and physical abuse of women is the major target of this tale, and it is delivered in a searing fashion.  The novel evoked in me two contradictory responses.  At times I needed to get away from the book as its intensity became so great I couldn't bear it.  At other times, especially as I approached the end, I wanted to put the story down to prolong the experience of reading it.  By the end, I was left still wanting more.  Fortunately, there's one more book left in the trilogy.  Sadly, author Stieg Larsson died in 2005 at the age of fifty.  He had completed manuscripts for three novels and there may be a semi-completed fourth as well as outlines for a fifth and sixth novel of a projected ten book series.  There's a novel  in Larsson's story, both before his death and in the problems that have emerged with the execution of his will.  Since, in 2008, Larsson was the second most popular author in the world, the size of his estate is substantial.  None of the matters above interfere or contribute to the reader's enjoyment of this book, but they are interesting in themselves. The dramatic tension coupled with anxiety and fear the book evokes is more than enough reward for anyone who undertakes to read it.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is available in hard cover and trade paperback at all the usual on-line or local outlets.  Support your local independent bookstore.  The third novel in the trilogy, now called The Millenium Trilogy after the name of Blomqvist's magazine, is also available and films of all three books have also been completed with The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo out in Swedish with English sub-titles.  These books are a terrific read, but R rated for violence and sexual subject matter.

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