Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was enjoying a bout of self-indulgence. Yesterday evening I finished the The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second book in the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

When I got through the cliff-hanging ending at 9:40 last night, I jumped into my car, raced to B&N, (arriving just five minutes before they closed) and bought the hardcover of the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest just so I could see what happened next.

If you read my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here, you probably figured out that I wasn't crazy about the novel. I described it as two books in one: half locked-room mystery and half financial crime novel. I found the financial crime story to be pretty derivative and the plotting and pacing of the entire novel wildly uneven. In my view, the nominal protagonist Mikael Blomkvist was a place-holder rather than a fully-fleshed-out character.

What kept my interest were the two things at which Larsson excelled: the vivid, atmospheric descriptions of a cold, dark and lonely Sweden and the terrific character of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo.

I feel very differently about the second book in the series.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is also two books in one. On one hand, it is a suspenseful thriller while on the other, it's a police procedural. However, IMHO, Larsson matured enormously as a writer from the first to the second book. While a bit pokey in the police procedural sections, Fire is nowhere near as deadly in pace as the financial crime sections of Dragon Tattoo. And the thriller part of Fire is terrific. I didn't want to put the book down.

In Dragon Tattoo, the mystery was like a chewy nougat, sandwiched between the two halves of the plodding financial crime. In Fire, Larsson is far more skillful, weaving the police procedural in and out of the thriller.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is set two years after the events in Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth has been traveling around the world, going wherever the urge takes her.

Blomkvist has been focussed on his magazine Millennium, which has prospered over the past two years. He and his partner Berger have struck a deal with another journalist who has been writing an expose on the sex trade in Sweden. As Bloomkvist did with the Wennerström scandal of Dragon Tatto, the plan is to first issue a magazine article that exposes the shady dealings of the powerful people (including politicians, judges and cops) who are exploiting teenage girls and then follow up by publishing a book that goes into even more detail.

Before the article or the book can be published, the young journalist behind the story and his researcher girlfriend are murdered, execution-style. On the same night, Lisbeth's guardian, who horrendously abused her in the first book, is also murdered with the same gun. The weapon--with Lisbeth's fingerprints all over it--had been left at the scene of the double homicide, making her the prime suspect.

One of my few quibbles with the book is its heavy reliance on coincidence. Lisbeth had been in the young couple's apartment shortly before the murders, and Blomkvist is the one who finds the bodies. That was a little too neat for me. However, I forgave Larsson because of the great ride the thriller took me on.

While the police initiate a nationwide manhunt for the "Lesbian Satanist" madwoman Lisbeth Salander, Salander herself is searching for the one man from her past with whom she still has unsettled business.

The novel goes into detail about Salander's past life, explaining much of who she is and why. And although she seems very alone, the few friends she has are marshalling their efforts to help her.

The two villains of the novel are satisfyingly evil. The mysterious Zala, whom Salander is pursuing, is a Russian spy turned Swedish criminal. And Ronald Niedermann, Zala's enforcer, seems to be a combination of two of my favorite James Bond villains: Red Grant, the blond giant in From Russia with Love, and Oddjob from Goldfinger.

But even those villains could not overshadow Salander. A friend of mine just read Dragon Tattoo for her book club. She said to me that Lisbeth Salander pushed protagonist Mikael Blomkvist out of the way just like Hannibal Lecter shoved Will Graham off center stage in Red Dragon, the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. I thought that was a terrific insight. I don't know what the authors' intentions were in either case, but I do know they created fabulously vivid characters that could not be kept in the background.

Where Salander was a secondary character to Blomkvist in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the two exchange places in Fire. The second book belongs completely to Lisbeth.

And when I realized where the title The Girl Who Played With Fire came from, I forgot how to breathe for several long seconds.

I went on line to Amazon to look at the reviews for both books. Seventy percent of the reviews for Dragon Tattoo were either four- or five-stars. Eighty percent of the reviews for Fire were four- or five-stars.

I am now reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

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