Book Review: 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' by Stieg Larsson

By Dennis Drabelle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009


By Stieg Larsson

Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland

Knopf. 503 pp. $25.95

Oddly enough, Lisbeth Salander was not at the center of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Stieg Larsson's long, complex, thoroughly absorbing thriller published in the United States last year. Despite sporting the beastly tattoo, Salander played second banana to journalist Mikael Blomkvist as he solved a decades-old mystery involving a missing member of a wealthy Swedish family.

As if to make up for that slight, early in this sequel, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," Salander's name and photo appear in newspapers all over Sweden -- and not for her greater glory. Evidence places her at the scenes of three killings, and the gun used in two of them bears her fingerprints. The accompanying news stories portray her as an eccentric loner if not a nut case.

Readers of "Dragon Tattoo" will not be surprised to learn that Salander is indeed still withdrawn and irascible -- and also highly effective as a computer snoop. As she dons disguises and changes apartments and eludes the police, she has her old colleague and lover, Blomkvist, on her side, but given his tendency to fool around with other women, she refuses to have anything to do with him. (A well-meaning chap who simply capitalizes on Sweden's famously permissive attitude toward carnal pleasure, Blomkvist can't understand why Salander avoids him.)

Yet Salander is a rather different person from the brilliant but touchy Goth of "Dragon Tattoo." She is seasoned by a recent trip around the world. She has been phasing out her tattoos and piercings, partly because ostentation can be a spoiler for a private investigator and partly because they don't mean much to her anymore. And she is systematically becoming better acquainted with a subject for which she has always had a flair: higher mathematics. Besides putting her freedom in jeopardy, then, being fingered as a triple murderer threatens to reverse months of personal growth.

While looking into the crimes for which she is wanted, Salander again demonstrates her formidable computer-hacking skills. One of her best shows comes when she needs to "borrow" a car; targeting the parking garage of a company where she used to work, she reprograms its surveillance system from afar. "Between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. [the cameras] would show a repeat of the previous half-hour, but with an altered time code." Guess who will be on hand to do what in that "missing" half-hour.

Those who know the young woman well take her prowess into account. Consider Nils Erik Bjurman, the guardian she reports to as a condition for staying out of the mental hospital to which she was once committed. Bjurman raped her in the first book, only to be punished by Salander herself, who caught him by surprise, tied him up and gave him a humiliating, homemade tattoo. Aware that she can read his computer's mind, the odious guardian is careful not to leave any cybertrace of his plan to have her taken out by a hit man. Even so, Bjurman comes to a bad end.

Salander's estranged lover, Blomkvist, is craftier. Well aware that he can't keep Salander from breaking into his computer, he entices her to think better of him by creating a folder into which he stuffs whatever he learns about the ongoing murder investigation, along with his assurances that he believes in her innocence. In other words, he asks to be hacked. Slowly, in some of the novel's most dramatic sections, Salander begins to come around, and the pair tiptoe toward a reconciliation.

The Swedish title of "Dragon Tattoo" is "Men Who Hate Women." That motif runs through the new novel like a slushy undercurrent, all the more disturbing in light of Sweden's aforementioned sexual liberalism. If contempt for women is widespread in a country where love is all around, the reader might wonder, what help is there for societies still enmeshed in puritanism?

"The Girl Who Played With Fire" confirms the impression left by "Dragon Tattoo." Here is a writer with two skills useful in entertaining readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest; and parceling out information in a consistently enthralling way. The sharp-eyed may catch Larsson leaning on coincidence a bit too often in the new book, but overall his storytelling is so assured that he can get away with these peccadilloes. Less forgivable, perhaps, is a climactic episode that seems too obviously contrived to make readers gasp.

Stieg Larsson died in 2004, at age 50, after a heart attack, leaving three completed novels featuring Blomkvist and Salander (and rumor has it that part of a fourth was found in his computer). It's a shame that Larsson was taken from us so soon, but it's a gift that before his time ran out he managed to produce at least two first-rate thrillers, and perhaps three. We'll know for sure next year, when the last book is scheduled to appear in English.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World. His new book, "Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns and High Living on the Comstock Lode," has just been published.

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